Today marks the final day of the Global Law Summit, an event which has seen more than 2,000 delegates from around the world descend on London, to celebrate world-renowned legal system.
The three day event, which has taken more than two years to plan, was designed to promote Britain’s standing as a top-quality exporter of law and justice – something which is worth billions to the UK economy and key to the attempt to return to economic prosperity.
That reputation was not won overnight. It evolved over hundreds of years and was built on the integrity and credibility of practitioners. It enabled us to play the leading role in the promotion of the Rule of Law. Fairness and the need to protect society’s most vulnerable were fundamental components. That in a sense, is the whole point of the Rule of Law.
So we are justifiably proud of our legal heritage. The eight-hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta falls this June. But whilst we trumpet the quality of our legal system to the international market, we are getting perilously close to shutting out those that most need access to justice. We are forgetting how the reputation was won. Parts of our system are, though lack of funding, now at breaking point.
The legal profession understands that in austere times cuts will be made, but the proportion of Government expenditure on the justice system is small compared to other departments. For example, it is claimed by some that expenditure on both the NHS and the education budget for schools will be "ring-fenced" in the future. The publicly funded legal system has however suffered swingeing cuts for many years and there is no sign of this abating. Much of what we value most will be chopped away at until there is little left.
The cuts, while offering the Government short term savings, will invariably entail social and economic cost elsewhere. We will all inherit the consequences, the most obvious one being that victims, witnesses, parents and those on trial will have access to poorer representation.
Forget, if you like, about the lawyers. Those with skill will choose another walk of life without much difficulty. They are not the victims of a poorer system. If you will not hear it from them, then listen to the judges. Much has been heard in the press of late from judges deeply worried about the effects that the recent cuts have had on access to justice. They come from the Family Courts, the Employment Tribunals and the Civil Courts.
Those that understand what is happening to our legal system, those who work in it on a daily basis, have a duty to speak out, voice their concerns and inform politicians and the public alike of the substantial issues to be faced resulting from constant underinvestment .
This is becoming a huge political issue affecting society as a whole. It will influence the voting decisions of the thousands working in the legal profession. Criminal Barristers stood firm against further cuts to Legal Aid last year and will not stand by and watch the further erosion of the justice system.
Those seeking power should listen. In an election year, those that value access to justice and the Rule of Law will weigh up their options very carefully.
Andrew Langdon QC is Leader of the Western Circuit
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