Law: Mixed year begins and ends wrapped up in Straw

It's been a busy year, with scandals, resignations, extradition, and the biggest shake-up for 50 years
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The Independent Culture
THE YEAR is closing in a strikingly similar way to how it began, with Home Secretary Jack Straw hogging the headlines. At the beginning of 1998, the press were running his picture on any pretext because a juvenile had been accused of a crime - in this case, drugs-related - but the Attorney General had obtained an injunction against naming the cabinet minister's son who was involved. In the end, the juvenile in question, William Straw, was named in the Scottish Daily Mail and The Scotsman (highlighting the differences in the Scottish legal system), and the injunction had to be lifted.

The year end has, of course, seen Jack Straw involved in what has been cited as one of the most important decisions in international law, with the proceedings in the extradition of General Pinochet to Spain. The decision has had international lawyers and jurists predicting that no leader who has grossly violated human rights will be above the law.

In between, there has been an almost unprecedented year of change for the legal system, affecting judges, lawyers and consumers. Despite the press coverage on how he was refurbishing his apartments at Westminster, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, made clear at the outset his aims to modernise justice - as well as modernising his mode of dress.

The Government had already trailed most of its proposals during the year, and these were included in last month's Queen's Speech. They range from a radical overhaul of the 50-year old legal aid system, including a community legal service, to more family-friendly employment laws. There has also been consultation on reform of divorce law, including whether prenuptial agreements should be recognised, and the Government has also recently issued its consultation paper on how to deal with delays in house sales.

The Government's proposals may signal good and bad news for the consumer, but for those at the top end of the legal profession, 1998 has not been the best of years.

Judges, in particular, have had mixed fortunes. In an unprecedented move, one High Court judge resigned in February, after three Court of Appeal judges attacked his "intolerable delay" in deciding a case - it took 20 months for Mr Justice Harman to deliver his judgment.

Things went well for the judiciary until Richard Gee, a High Court judge, was prosecuted for alleged mortgage fraud of pounds 1m. The trial ended with a hung jury, and the Attorney General intervened to decide that there should not be a retrial. And the recent House of Lords decision on Pinochet has had Lord Hoffman's connections with Amnesty International put under the spotlight by five other Law Lords.

On the positive side, the Pinochet case has highlighted awareness of human rights, and coincides with the passing of the Human Rights Act, which will come into effect in 2000. And judges have also been involved in heading inquiries that are likely to have a profound effect on the legal system, such as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the BSE inquiry and the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Lower down the legal echelons, the Bar came under attack with the Government's proposals to end its near monopoly on appearing in the higher courts, and the unprecedented House of Lords' inquiry into the fees claimed from the legal aid fund in June by four QCs.

Even solicitors have had mixed fortunes. Many of the City firms have recorded record profits, and a number have also expanded globally: Linklaters & Alliance will merge with four European firms to become one of the largest legal firms in the world, and Freshfields has expanded, both in Europe and in the US, as has Allen & Overy.

The success of many law firms has been confirmed by the figures released by the Office for National Statistics - overseas earnings for law firms jumped 20 per cent, to pounds 644m. But success has its price - recent reports from the National Crime Intelligence Service show a number of high street law firms and City law firms currently under investigation for money-laundering.

At the other end of the legal system, for the consumers of legal services this year saw the highest number of complaints against both barristers and solicitors, which has fuelled calls for the profession to dispense with self-regulation. The Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, the Legal Services' Ombudsman and the lay commissioner for complaints against barristers have all signalled to lawyers that legal services have to be improved. The main weapon in their armoury is that the Government - in the shape of the Lord Chancellor, who is looking for value for money in his reforms - is right behind them.