He spoke eloquently about the theme of this year’s conference – innovation and opportunity – as the life blood of a liberal profession. He took the audience back to 1873, when Levi Strauss patented his copper riveted overalls, Girton College opened as the first women-only college in Cambridge, Gladstone was prime minister, and the first of the Judicature Acts was passed to reform the judiciary and courts.
He said that just as in 1873, when focus was given to the issues of innovation, diversity and access to justice, there are interesting parallels today. While there were problems then, as now, there was a focus on strengthening the rule of law. The next six years will mark out the most ambitious period of change since the Judicature Acts of the 1870s; the court and tribunal reform programme that was announced in September is a £1bn investment project, the most ambitious court and tribunal modernisation programme in the world.
This year’s conference was a response to the realities of our age. ‘Austerity’ is not the driver of reform, but forces us to face up to the system’s limitations and be clear about what is necessary to prevent decline. It was important to avoid: lengthy delays that are inimical to justice and to welfare; processes and language that are unintelligible to all but the specialist user; and a system that is at times so costly that the only solution so far has been to impair access to justice by removing legal representation.
Sir Ernest said his intention is to reform process to make it clear and fit for the 21st century: an environment where paper-based processes are to digital processes and cloud-based systems what the horse-drawn carriage is to space travel. New process will inevitably lead to new rules and practices which need to be designed before we digitise them. It will be important to make those processes as intelligible to the user as possible.
In tribunals, online documents will be the norm, and criminal courts are already making use of tablets and screens. While there will be some who have neither the ability, nor the will, to take part in a digital dispute resolution system, the challenge is to design a new process which strengthens rather than dilutes the rule of law and which enhances the citizen’s access to justice. In the finest traditions of the Bar where innovation is second nature because it is fundamental to the practice of the common law, you will find and develop your own opportunities to provide digital access, both to advice but also to representation before online courts and tribunals.
He concluded by saying that while a digital world may be more effective and efficient (even more accessible, proportionate, swifter and more intelligible), it does not provide a substitute for the sophisticated skills of the advocate and the litigator. Reminding the audience that we are on the cusp of major reform to try and improve the rule of law by making it more accessible to the public, he asked the profession for its contribution.
Contributor Melissa Coutinho