In defence of Liz Truss
Lawyers should stop making non-lawyers, like the Lord Chancellor, feel inferior, says Dana Denis-Smith
Just four months after taking office, the legal profession has, so we are led to believe, assessed that Liz Truss is ‘failing’ in her duties.
The range of failures appears to be wide – from being a non-lawyer to being insufficiently firm in her support of the judiciary in the light of the Divisional Court’s article 50 decision and the subsequent attacks on judges in the media. It appears that, at the moment, the Lord Chancellor can do no right. But we should ask why has such a dismissal come as quickly as it has?
I admit I saluted the appointment of the first female Lord Chancellor. Finally we could say that UK’s legal system had at least one woman at its pinnacle – and we can count the women in leading legal institutions on the fingers of one hand. I also respected Truss’ commitment to put diversity at the centre of her agenda. Many critics appeared to think more important reforms should have taken precedent and that her focus on diversity is yet another symptom of her being underpowered as a Lord Chancellor. For too long the profession has paid lip service to diversity but action did not follow words and it is time that they are called out on it.
It’s no small thing to have a woman appointed Lord Chancellor in 2016 when that institution had existed for nearly 1,000 years without one. As the founder of the First 100 Years project, charting the history of women in law over the last century, I feel that her appointment was a breakthrough which could only be a positive sign for women contemplating a career in law (or politics).
For years I have followed the struggle of women trying to rise to the top of the profession. As a solicitor, I am constantly puzzled at the distinction we make between lawyers and non-lawyers as a way of making those who are not qualified feel inferior. It is unhelpful to the profession as a whole to do this, as was shown by the media’s rage against a judiciary that feels too disconnected from society at large, not least because, from a demographic perspective, it is not representative.
We should remember what French politician Georges Clemenceau said: ‘War is too important a matter to be left to the military.’ Practitioners across the board are aware that changes are needed to upgrade the way justice is delivered. It’s almost 20 years since the Lord Chancellor decided cases in the courts. Truss’ dual role as secretary of state for justice is now an administrative one; developing the law and the legal system rather than deciding cases.
This is an important distinction, as very often quality of management is better found outside of the profession. Law firm reforms have allowed non-lawyers to take the helm and bring in much needed automation and efficiency that ensure clients are better served. We don’t expect the secretary of state for transport to be a racing driver or civil engineer. There is no reason for the Lord Chancellor should be a lawyer. A non-lawyer can bring a fresh perspective of how things can be improved.
The profession should rally behind its leaders to ensure the changes brought in will serve society and protect the rule of law. Similarly, we lawyers should work with politicians and all those impacted by the justice system to ensure the legal system remains both independent and effective; that it is representative of the society is serves.
Putting Truss’ diversity agenda – from gender to social background – at the core of the Lord Chancellor’s role might seem like an unnecessary step but that is not so. Justice must be done and also be seen to be done, not in the eyes of lawyers alone but of society as a whole. If we are all equal in the eyes of the law, then we should ensure the law upholds equality and places it at its very core.