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The Rule of Law is made up of 4 things: equality under the law, transparency of law, an independent judiciary, and accessible legal remedy.
These four components are at the core of the legal profession. Indeed, imagining a conversation between legal practitioners where the importance of the Rule of Law is called into question sounds wildly unrealistic. But outside of the profession, could the same really be said? Why is the Rule of Law not equally valued by wider society?
In November 2020, the Pro Bono Week Committee and LexisNexis jointly led an event entitled ‘Rule of Law and Access to Justice: where do we go from here?’, where panellists were asked to share their thoughts on the current threats to the Rule of Law and ideas to promote its importance more widely.
The impressive panel included Lady Hale , former President of the UK Supreme Court; Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the IBA Human Rights Institute; David Greene, President of the Law Society of England & Wales; Matthew Ryder QC, former Deputy Mayor of London; and Iain Anderson, Executive Chairman of the Cicero Group, and was chaired by James Harper, Executive Sponsor of Rule of Law and CSR at LexisNexis UK.
This blog post intends to offer a brief summary of the event, in advance of the second part of the discussions on Thursday 3 June, timed to coincide with Volunteer Week.
Harper introduced the topic by pinpointing several elements which demonstrated current Rule of Law issues, including invective criticism by parliamentarians against lawyers and members of the judiciary, the backlog of cases in the court system, and the government inquiry into judicial review. He then asked the panellists to identify the greatest threats they perceived. Among those highlighted, four widely shared, namely the complexity of the law, the rise of populism, challenges to the judicial system, and the lack of public appreciation for the Rule of Law.
Complexity of the law
Lady Hale raised the issue of complexity as one of the greatest concerns. She highlighted that, amid a global health crisis, we were “being bombarded with a huge quantity of laws” and facing constant changes, leading to a lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny. Ryder addressed the same issue in a broader perspective, noting the “blizzard of legislation” which was going through parliament, while also highlighting the ridiculousness of a situation where a case went all the way to the UK Supreme Court before anyone realised that the law was no longer in force.
Rise of populism
The rise of populism was mentioned by Baroness Kennedy. She stated that populist leaders tended to publicly attack the judiciary when they were not satisfied with judicial decisions. Greene pointed out to the fact that the legal community and the legal system were often differentiated from the rest of the population in populist discourses, creating an important social gap. He noted the recent government labelling of criminal defence professionals as “lefty lawyers” for simply “doing their job in ensuring access to justice” by representing individuals accused of crimes. Criticism from politicians has also been directed against individual judges rendering decisions relating to immigration or human rights.
Challenges to our judicial system
The erosion of public support for the legal aid system was highlighted by Greene. He argued that the criminal justice system had been in a crisis for a long time and that the lack of funding for legal aid had had negative ramifications, including difficulties in recruiting solicitors into criminal justice. Ryder added that this “dismantling” in the preceding years had been a “terrible and tragic development”, impacting a “fundamental part of British society”. He felt that access to legal remedy was being disregarded.
Lack of public appreciation
Ryder continue by highlighting the lack of general trust in the legal system. While this is in part by a populist narrative from the political classes, Ryder insisted on the need for legal and judicial systems to be more diverse and representative of the population. He used several cases to point out the importance of diversity in ensuring the general public feel more involved with the legal system, as well as generating better decision making by taking into account different realities. Anderson assigned a point score to each of the four components of the Rule of Law highlighting that the understanding and the perception of the public would probably be generally poor.
Lady Hale mentioned that she thought that the public would “wake up” and understand the current threat to the Rule of Law amid the pandemic, hoping they would seize the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, the responsibility to share the importance of the Rule of Law should remain a priority within the legal community.
Fostering learning of the legal justice should start with young pupils, according to Lady Hale. Learning the basics of the legal system and its core values should be compulsory as early as primary school. Baroness Kennedy agreed, highlighting that young children already knew the meaning of concepts such as fairness.
Lady Hale also pointed out that the legal community needs to find people outside of the profession to explain why the Rule of Law is beneficial. Lawyers are often accused of being self-serving when raising issues related to legal aid, proper scrutiny, or the Rule of Law, she noted. Greene also argued that people must be shown that the law concerns everybody and that they could be required to deal with a legal issue themselves tomorrow including housing problems, crime, or family matters.
Ryder added that to make the public more involved, the narrative surrounding legal aid should be adjusted so that legal aid is seen as part of the British identity, like people see the NHS. Legal services were wrongly pushed aside by politicians but should be seen as a fundamental value of British culture and identity.
Following an intervention from Anderson, who stated that legal practitioners should start to do things differently and have a tweetable version of the importance of the Rule of Law, Harper concluded the event by asking panellists to think about their own tweet length summary, which produced the following:
@LadyHale: ‘Do right to me and I’ll do right to you, and the law will do right to us’
@Greene: ‘I’m a young single mother, I have two young children, I live in accommodation that is damp, the health of my children is suffering, I can’t get advice to enforce my rights because I can’t get legal aid.’
@Ryder: ‘Who we are is the rule of law’
@Kennedy: ‘The law is there for you and yours and if you don’t make it yours the government will make it theirs’
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