Liz Truss is right to praise City firms, but she shouldn't forget the rest of the legal services sector, writes John van der Luit-Drummond
Make UK legal services great(er) again was the Lord Chancellor’s clarion call this week as the government set out its Brexit agenda ahead of what are now certain to be tough divorce negotiations with the EU.
Channeling her inner President Trump, Liz Truss said a bold and bright future awaits solicitors and barristers after Brexit: a veritable land of milk and honey for those lawyers who are ready to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by a new relationship with Europe. Meanwhile, those practitioners of a more nervous disposition should have their doubts assuaged by the knowledge that she’s got you covered.
‘As we enter this exciting new era, I am pleased to be working with judges and the industry to ensure we tap into all talents and continue to lead the world in the increasingly competitive legal services sector.’
Truss told attendees at a roundtable hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer that she is aware of the importance of cooperation in civil justice and is working with the Brexit secretary, David Davis, to ensure international businesses continue to choose UK courts and laws to resolve cross-border disputes. ‘It is in the interests of all European countries who want to do business here that we maintain civil justice cooperation when we leave the EU,’ said the justice secretary. ‘We are already working to make sure we get the best possible deal for the profession.’
As set out in the Law Society’s and the Bar Council’s respective reports, the best deal would allow UK lawyers to practise and base themselves in the EU; ensure that Britain remains open to international talent; maintain mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments so as to deliver certainty for families and consumers; allow for collaboration in policing, security, and criminal justice to continue; and provide assurance that legal certainty will be maintained throughout the EU withdrawal process.
Yet the best deal may mean no deal at all. Speaking at Lancaster House on Monday, the prime minister explained that the UK is heading for a hard Brexit; leaving the single market, customs union, and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice were all among the government’s 12 priorities for withdrawal. And, in an act of brinksmanship, Theresa May warned she would walk away from negotiations if the UK didn’t get the deal it wanted.
So, regardless of negotiations between the UK government and its EU counterparts, just how will the Lord Chancellor persuade global business to remain invested in British lawyers? What about a high-level business and legal profession conference – a ‘Global Britain Legal Summit’? Well, that is exactly what we are getting this spring, according to Truss, who appears to be unaware of how the profession received Chris Grayling’s previous attempt to market the UK legal sector. Her predecessor’s ‘Magna Carta jamboree’ took place at the height of tensions over cuts to legal aid, with access to justice lawyers demonstrating outside the big tent where government representatives courted their counterparts from countries with dubious rule of law records.
Still, let’s give the Ministry of Justice the benefit of the doubt. Surely it will act with the utmost sensitivity when wooing international work for City lawyers, even as those at the coal face of the justice system hobble along, largely ignored, until further budget cuts need finding, or the insurance lobby comes a-calling.
That the government is paying any attention to the legal services sector’s needs post-Brexit is, of course, welcome. The market boosts the UK’s economy by £25.7bn each year, contributes £3.6bn to net exports, and employs approximately 370,000 people. Moreover, as Chancery Lane has highlighted, a 1 per cent growth in the sector creates 1,000 new jobs, while an additional £1 of turnover stimulates £1.39 in the economy. And let’s not forget that, away from global markets, the SME law firm sector, which provides services to ordinary consumers and small businesses, is valued at £12bn – that’s about half of the overall sector’s worth. Where Brexit negotiations leave that sector is anybody’s guess.
Ensuring the entire legal sector’s continued competitiveness should be a central part of the government’s negotiations. To ignore it would be, to quote the prime minister, an ‘act of calamitous self-harm’. But then again, so were cuts to legal aid, court closures, and unconscionable court fees that restrict access to justice. Is anyone betting against personal injury reform and fixed costs in clinical negligence leaving yet further scars?
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal