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Global Law Summit at risk of hijack by lawyers

Justice Alliance calls on 'principled lawyers' to boycott 'hypocritical' government's legal event

19 January 2015

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This year's flagship legal event is at risk of being hijacked by lawyers unhappy with the government's legal policies.

February will see the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta with a Global Law Summit designed to showcase 'Britain's unrivalled legal expertise' and promote the UK as 'the destination of choice for global business'.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the summit provides "yet more evidence that Britain continues to lead the way in promoting free enterprise, economic growth, and the rule of law around the world".

However, the Justice Alliance, supported by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA), is calling on 'all principled lawyers' to boycott the Global Law Summit and attend its alternative celebration of Magna Carta, Not the Global Law Summit [NGLS].

Government hypocrisy

Critics of the £1,500 per ticket event, which SJ understands includes several lawyers currently fighting the government's plans for legal aid, argue that the government are 're-writing history' by scheduling the summit in February when the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta will be in June.

A statement on the Justice Alliance's official website reads: "The government is re-writing historical dates to make political capital out of a celebration of the rule of law. It is trumpeting our justice system while behind the scenes damaging the rule of law and causing irreparable harm to access to justice."

Commenting on the launch of the protest event, president of the LCCSA, Jon Black, said that NGLS was an important response to a cynical government-endorsed legal business fair.

"[NGLS] will highlight the sheer hypocrisy of courting international acclaim as a country of great justice whilst striking a hammer blow to the reality of equality before the law and chipping away at the rule of law itself," said Black

"This year is meant to be about celebrating Magna Carta. But the government chooses to use it to attract international business to our courts and at the same time attacks people's access to legal aid, ushering in polarised standards of justice, and at the same time the government is curbing judicial review and threatening our withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. It's quite simply the wrong way to go about celebrating a charter of civil liberties and legal rights!" he added.

Black went on to suggest the judicial review brought by the LCCSA and the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA), in conjunction with the Law Society, was an example of all that is wrong with the government's celebration of Magna Carta.

"As part of our last ditch attempt to preserve real access to justice at the grassroots, our current judicial review on the disastrous carve up of legal aid representation in police stations and magistrates' courts is an essential tool to challenge this government's cavalier approach to publicly funded legal aid. To hear in the High Court that the MoJ admits it pressed ahead with the contracts regardless of knowing it could go very wrong in places, shows why this kind of recourse to state accountability and defence of our legal aid system is so crucial."

He continued: "We at the LCCSA helped set up the Justice Alliance who are organising the fantastic protest and alternative event because we could see vast swathes of our society were suffering from the ideologically driven legal aid cuts. It's so important this issue isn't dominated by lawyers."

NGLS will incorporate a series of events to support "the fight for legal aid and access to justice, and highlight the hypocrisy of the government's Magna Carta celebrations". The NGLS will kick off its celebrations with a comedy night that will host stand-up comedians and satirists including Stephen K Amos, Stewart Lee and Sara Pascoe on the evening of 23 February, the same day the Global Law Summit will launch.

Healthy debate

The Global Law Summit has already been backed by the Law Society and the Bar Council. Law Society president Andrew Caplen said in November 2014: "The Law Society is proud to be a founding partner of the Global Law Summit. UK law firms are one of Britain's export success stories. Businesses all over the world depend on high quality, modern legal services to ensure a properly regulated, efficient and ethical marketplace.

"The Global Law Summit is an opportunity for the UK to showcase this and a chance for our members to build relationships across markets and jurisdictions from around the world. This is the event for business and the legal profession in 2015."

Commenting on the NGLS movement, a Law Society spokesperson said: "In the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it is important that we all take part in a healthy debate about access to justice and the rule of law. The Law Society has been incredibly active in challenging threats to access to justice, including our current judicial review on criminal legal aid.

"We represent a diverse profession and we are a partner in the Global Law Summit. It will bring together a mix of lawyers, business leaders, public sector decision-makers and government officials from around the world to discuss, debate, and develop relationships across markets and jurisdictions."

Showcase opportunity

The government's former attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC, who was appointed vice chair of the Global Law Summit in July, told SJ that the gathering of lawyers and business people in London will be a great opportunity to showcase the country's legal services.

"Clearly it is part of Magna Carta year but it offers a real opportunity to do two things. One is to bring people together in London to discuss a wide range of rule of law issues, ranging from access to justice to human rights to the way in which the law can be used to facilitate commerce and economic development - all that is there," he said.

"At the same time it also offers an opportunity for not just London, but actually the UK, because it involves Scottish law societies, Northern Ireland, to showcase the very substantial expertise we have in this field, in which, I think we can say fairly, we are a world leader. Of course, there are other countries that also offer such services, of a very high quality, but nevertheless I don't think we should underestimate what we have here, and celebrating that at the same time as benefiting the wider world communities is a very desirable. I do hope people support it," added Grieve.

'Sordid programme'

The summit has not been without its detractors in recent weeks. Journalist for The Telegraph newspaper, Peter Oborne, recently described it as 'sordid, disgusting and debased' and criticised how the government could celebrate the principles of Magna Carta while simultaneously attempting to restricting judicial review, pledging to repeal the Human Rights Act, and initiating swingeing cuts to legal aid and denying access to justice for the poor.

Grieve, who has since spoken to Oborne on his piece, suggested to SJ that The Telegraph journalist was 'mistaken' in his article. "As I understand his thesis, it was that a government, which can be criticised by some over issues like legal aid and access to justice shouldn't be contaminating itself, shouldn't be allowed to be a sponsor or supporter of a global law summit. I disagree with him about that," he said.

"The fact that people may have criticisms of the government over the way it's approached some aspects of the legal system doesn't mean the government should be ignored when it tries to do something which seems to me to be essentially positive."

Oborne was also critical of the involvement of several high-ranking corporate law firms in the summit. These firms include Schillings, Allen & Overy, Simmons & Simmons, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Travers Smith, Macfarlanes, as well as barristers' chambers 39 Essex Street.

"I told the journalist that I thought he had a misunderstanding about the role of successful international law firms," added Grieve. "There was a slight hint of 'fat-cat lawyers' trying to have a mutual self-congratulatory conference, but it does slightly gloss over, as I know from my role as attorney general on pro bono, that one of the very biggest supporters of the pro bono work, which provides law centres in some of the most deprived parts of our country, comes from Magic Circle law firms. It comes from the efforts of very poor lawyers as well, but to ignore the benefits of getting people together and to say, 'Oh well, this is just about wealthy lawyers' was a simplistic piece'."

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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