British successes in the world market for law

From an address by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to the Annual Judges' Dinner, held at the Mansion House, London

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Tonight, Mr Lord Mayor, I want to say a few words about English law and lawyers in an international context. Economic progress for our country depends on international confidence in our legal system. Just as economies are underpinned by trade, so trade itself is underpinned by the fabric of law, and in particular commercial law.

Tonight, Mr Lord Mayor, I want to say a few words about English law and lawyers in an international context. Economic progress for our country depends on international confidence in our legal system. Just as economies are underpinned by trade, so trade itself is underpinned by the fabric of law, and in particular commercial law.

The City of London, for example, could not flourish as the major international financial centre which it is without international confidence that the English legal system will enforce obligations impartially and efficiently; and confidence that the system is flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing financial markets, market products and techniques.

Our substantive law is a world-beater. English commercial law and procedures have evolved over three centuries of industrial and post-industrial development, and the judiciary has refined them with a clear understanding not just of the technical needs of business, but of the imperative of wealth creation in sustaining free institutions within a society under the rule of law.

To give just one example, it came to my attention two weeks ago, when hosting a visit by the Anglo-Italian Judicial Exchange, that, in Italy, Anglo-Saxon models in leasing, factoring, project financing and joint ventures are being used; and the Court of Bologna made a recent analysis of the English concept of the trust.

Confidence in our legal system has also provided a secure base for the London law firms, which are of course held in the highest international regard and have the widest global reach. London has four of the top 10 law firms identified by Legal Business Global in 1999. Our legal sector is one of our most successful national exporters: the sector is worth at least £10bn. Foreign earnings by our law firms are conservatively estimated at about £1.5bn, or 1.5 per cent of our total Gross Domestic Product, and may in truth be much more.

And also our legal sector is a source of great innovation. New legal frameworks are evolving to encompass the new ways of doing business in the capital and other financial markets; and new ways of pooling business knowledge and expertise. London is fast becoming a centre for commercial alternative dispute resolution, building on the justified distinction of the Commercial Court.

But the Government is determined to promote the British legal services market still further, both within Europe and worldwide. Government can, on occasion, do things that private enterprises cannot. Political influence on a bilateral basis can be invaluable - and trade negotiations can open up markets. The WTO can break down trade barriers and professional restrictive practices. As a provider and purchaser of legal services, and as a sponsor and a regulator of the market, government has a fundamental role, whether acting to deregulate the market internally, reducing costly restrictive practices, or promoting its interests on the international stage.

We are not, at present, realising our opportunities as fully as we should. A report to me recently by the inimitable retired Judge George Dobry has made it clear that, although the UK's individual efforts are of high quality, the UK's promotion of its legal services is, on the whole, both uncoordinated and unsustained.

In May, I presented a paper to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Productivity and Competitiveness on the development of the legal services market at home and abroad. The committee concluded that my department should assume a new sponsoring role for that market, and a co-ordinating role across Whitehall for exchanges of a legal nature.

So tonight it gives me great pleasure to make public the new co-ordinating role for my department in the British legal services market.

I am quite sure you will all work with us to increase its profile and its future success.

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