A new legal year is almost upon us. In England and Wales we celebrate this – and those of faith seek guidance for it – in ceremonies and services across the country. The most prominent is the official service in Westminster Abbey, followed by the Lord Chancellor’s breakfast in the Palace of Westminster.
Our senior judges, with many Silks and more junior judges, will put on their legal best and take part in events with mediaeval roots. As with all such traditions, not all is as it might seem. The ‘breakfast’ is now a finger-food buffet, and a bit of a scrum; and it is a long time since the Abbey or the breakfast could accommodate all our Silks every year. Nevertheless, this occasion is still a fixture in the legal calendar.
We are not the only legal profession to hold an annual event other than a conference. Legal professions across Europe and in other common law jurisdictions, in particular, have developed their own traditions, although few can claim ancient origins, even among those Bars who can compete with the Inns for their antiquity (the Paris and Barcelona Bars, for example, date back to the 13th century). Compared with the Paris Bar’s days of advocacy, speeches, and then a ball, or the grand annual ball thrown by the Austrians in the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, we are characteristically more restrained.
Some see our service and breakfast as anachronistic. Others question how welcoming an Abbey service may be to those of other faiths, or none. Whatever your view, I hope that others will do as I do, and treat the service as an opportunity to take a little time to contemplate, in a public forum and with some solemnity, the law and its fundamental role in our democratic state. In an over-pressured and increasingly technological world, it helps to remind ourselves of what our forebears built over centuries, and of our responsibility to pass it on, improved, to our successors.
At the same time, should we not take some pride and satisfaction in our legal inheritance, and not least in the Bar of England and Wales? Partly with this in mind, the event is more than just a domestic affair. Each year, together with the Law Society, we invite Bar leaders from across the world to take part. We organise discussions and social events to exchange ideas, build cooperation, and highlight our values. It is one of the very few gatherings that all Bar leaders want to attend, and there will be well over 60 of them this year.
Why do we invite them? International solidarity is one reason, but not the only reason. As our nation’s hard power has declined, we have learnt the value of soft power. We can now exert it as well as anyone, and our profession is a skilled exponent. The Opening of the Legal Year plays an important role in cementing our reputation as world leaders in the law. It gives a sheen, an interest, and a profile that others can only envy.
Why do they come? In part, they come for the event; for being part of it, and being seen to be part of it. They are not just onlookers, as tourists at the Changing of the Guard: they are participants. They take away not just photographs, but a respect for what we stand for, and a better appreciation of what we have created: not least the strength and depth of our adherence to the rule of law.
But they come, too, because of what we have achieved and represent, and because of the standing of our lawyers and our system internationally. The world respects this, and us. Many seek to emulate us. Such a gathering would be nothing if we did not have the legal system, the judges and the lawyers to justify it: but we do; and the Bar is at their beating heart.
We should not shy away from taking pride in all this. Pride in the best sense: not arrogance or vanity. A pride in how far we have come, tempered by humility in knowing that we can never arrive at a destination: we must always strive to improve.
But we must also not forget how we got here. Legal historians (and watchers of ‘Garrow’s Law’) know how long it has taken us, step by step, to build a system based on fairness and the rule of law. We have not always had independent and incorruptible judges and lawyers. The rights we give to defendants in criminal cases, to hold the balance between the state and the individual, may see their origin in Magna Carta or before, but took the best part of a millennium to become entrenched. While international commerce has long been based on the common law, this has only come about through centuries of experience and development.
In the context of our national history, an effective, efficient and independent system, free from corruption, is a fairly recent phenomenon. There is no guarantee we shall keep it. Nor can we take a strong, independent Bar for granted. Whatever we seek to gain through reform and technology, we must not undermine the hard won triumphs of the past, whether through ignorance or neglect or starving the system of funds. Nor can we fail to make reforms – including to how we run our courts – which encourage greater diversity, retention and progression at the Bar.
In Mexico, with whose lawyers and judges we are looking to build closer relations, they have just set up an adversarial system for criminal cases. Like us before them, they want to stamp out corruption, improve transparency, accountability and public confidence, produce speedier justice, and secure fairness to complainants and defendants alike. They found the tools to achieve this in our adversarial system, but are well aware that success will depend on fearless, skilful, independent advocates. Sometimes it takes outsiders to point out the best of what we have to ourselves.
Contributor Andrew Walker QC, Chair of the Bar