As I reflect on recent times at the Bar Council, there are at least three reasons for optimism: 3,150 students signed up to our Pupillage Fair, with 650 barristers aiming to persuade them this is a profession to join; the launch of the Bar Council Leadership Programme with our first 36 hotly fought places, won by barristers of distinction and thoughtfulness; and our Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference: Bar of the Future. Adapting to current circumstances, they are all online and all the more accessible for that.

Nuremberg: anniversary of first international criminal courts

The law too is a living thing, changing and adapting to new situations. This is as true now as it has ever been, as we look back 75 years ago this November to the Nuremberg trials – a momentous landmark for international justice and the rule of law. On 20 November 1945, the first of 13 trials of war crimes started in Nuremberg; 20 of Germany’s Nazi leaders were in that first ground-breaking trial. History was being made. Before this, there was no jurisdiction or way of holding people to account for these kinds of war crimes. International cooperation and the rule of law were essential to ensuring the Nazi leadership were brought to justice for the atrocities they had committed. It is of note that every defendant had access to lawyers to represent them and interpreters to translate the proceedings so that they could understand what was happening in their trial.

Respect for the rule of law: 75 years on – treaties

Seventy five years on, international cooperation and respect for the rule of law remain crucial to functioning democracies around the world. Having worried in early 2020 about the ability of the public to access justice on the domestic front – through long court delays and lack of legal aid – now we have unexpectedly and concerningly had to confront fears that our international reputation and position on the global legal stage are being undermined. What a time to choose to put a Bill through Parliament to renege on our international obligations! The rule of law has been demoted to an optional extra in favour of political expediency. The ramifications undoubtedly present a shocking risk to the regard in which we are held by our neighbours and prospective trading partners. The effects may be long-lasting. In the September issue of Counsel, I wrote: ‘We must never forget that using our jurisdiction is a choice, not a necessity for international business.’ What a difference a few weeks makes! It seems as though our government forgot.

Respect for the rule of law: 75 years on – access to justice

If one takes the rule of law to mean that all persons, institutions and entities, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, it is a troubling moment domestically too. Does it matter that those in positions of political influence use inflammatory language to denigrate professionals acting properly? Of all the unexpected things in my unpredictable year as Chair of the Bar, defending lawyers against our own government’s comments is one that I did not foresee (see Letter to the Prime Minister*). And, ultimately, the Home Secretary’s remarks, amplified and endorsed by the Prime Minister’s, don’t just attack lawyers – a soft target (we must acknowledge) with the public to whom they aim to appeal. No. They actually attack the rule of law. If everyone is truly accountable under the law, that must include those at the top; and it must also provide ordinary citizens with a way of exercising their legal rights. Lawyers provide access to justice for those with rights to enforce, by helping them present their case in the best possible way. By driving decent practitioners away, those making inflammatory comments deprive people of their legal rights. That is why it matters that professionals are able to do their job properly, in the public interest, without fear of attack. And that is why this language must stop.

Applauding Advocate

Of course, we know that not everyone can exercise their rights, even now. It is ironic that the legal aid system was founded in 1949, at a time of enormous financial hardship in our country – not long after those ground-breaking, international trials. The most persuasive presentation of a case is likely (unsurprisingly) to be by a trained, ethical, expert lawyer but, thanks to decades of cuts to legal aid, access to justice for swathes of the public has deteriorated. Many people simply do not have their best chance of success because legal aid is not available. But there is a shining light – the generous pro bono work of thousands of barristers.

While no substitute for properly funding the justice system, the voluntary service provided by so many barristers makes a palpable difference to those struggling to exercise their legal rights. This year Advocate recruited 387 new barristers as panel members, making the expertise of roughly a quarter of the practising Bar accessible to those who cannot afford to pay. It has already undertaken 1,087 pieces of work; over 70% more than in 2019. Having just had the pleasure of being on the judging panel for the 2020 Pro Bono Awards, I can report that the generous, vital work that barristers do is extraordinary – in terms of level of commitment, impact on clients’ lives and the lives of practitioners. It is a fourth reason to be proudly optimistic for the future of the Bar. 

* The Prime Minister has not yet replied.