While we do not yet live in a dystopic society, the dysfunctional nature of modern life; forged on an anvil of oppressive religion and laws devised to suit the needs of the ruling elite of times past, leave us in 21st century Britain with more laws than the apparatus of the state can remember, let alone operate effectively. Britain leads the world in the covert and overt surveillance of its people with more CCTV cameras than any other country on earth, a raft of anti-terror laws and criminal and quasi-criminal laws pumped out of Westminster almost daily as politicians regulate a society that is moving dangerously close to being one of the most over-regulated in Europe and, possibly, the world… a society which has seen civil liberties eroded significantly over the past ten years of Labour rule.
I am no Tory but I marvel with no pleasure at how a Labour government, elected on the back of a promise to represent the less fortunate in our society, should enact laws which are being misused by councils and petty officials and which are being used to slowly take away the rights and freedoms we once enjoyed.
We talk blithely about British justice being the best in the world – it does have many good qualities – but our legal profession is in danger of being reduced to the role of undertaker and embalmer to a once more free country.
So what of lawyers and our role in this world?
Lawyers are under no more of a duty than plumbers, dentists and taxidermists, to act for society as a whole, to act as a bulwark against oppressive government rule, to take an active and professional interest in freedom and civil rights and the truth of the matter is that most don’t.
We don’t have one legal profession, we have many. We have two branches to the ‘profession’: solicitors and barristers, each with different duties and responsibilities. ‘Magic Circle’ and other corporate-commercial lawyers – as is their right – rarely, if ever come across civil liberty issues – save when a client faces the prospect of prosecution for a white collar crime. These lawyers represent the interests of business, individuals or corporate entities and government. Private client lawyers generally represent the interests of those who wish to create trusts, optimise their income or avoid tax or purchase property, commodities or goods and they too are, generally, not involved in individual issues of civil liberties. That is their chosen field of law. That is the work they are trained to do.
Listening to those who represent the profession talking about independence, about professionalism, about leading the world in the provision of legal services is enjoyable, but is it any more than ‘hype’ or ‘blether’ as we say North of the border? If lawyers in the business and wealthy private client sector don’t render a high quality service, there are plenty who do and who will, gladly, relieve those who don’t of the responsibility for doing so.
So, what are we left with in terms of lawyers who take upon themselves the duty and responsibility for representing the less fortunate, those who face prosecution for a crime they didn’t commit, those who need advice in a contentious divorce, those who need the help that our government should provide?
What are we left with of a legal profession of 140,000 and more lawyers who have the skills, the knowledge, the desire to ensure that our civil liberties are maintained, that law is applied according to law, that the police act properly, that other officials do not abuse their powers? I don’t know the precise answer, but I doubt that it would amount to much more than 15-20 per cent of the profession, if that.
And then what do we do to enable these remaining lawyers to act effectively? What does the government do to help these remaining lawyers? The government has reduced legal aid in criminal law, family and other civil law fields where there is a demonstrable need for the skills of a highly trained lawyer to represent the vulnerable. Law Centres can barely function without charitable support and civil liberty organisations, often staffed by lawyers, have also to rely on charity to operate, to protest in a reasoned manner when government acts unfairly or acts to reduce our freedoms.
It is a disgrace to our nation that we are in danger of returning to the days when ‘Justice’ was open only, like the doors of The Ritz Hotel, to those of means, power and influence. It is a disgrace that legal aid in criminal, family and some civil areas where the vulnerable need protection is being reduced to a point where experienced lawyers are just not able to work for the money provided.
Not all lawyers are the ‘fat cats’ beloved of the tabloid press. If a barrister or solicitor, after years of expensive training and now faced with the prospect of huge education debt, is not able to afford to do this much needed work – the vulnerable will ultimately go unadvised and unrepesented in civil matters, the innocent will not receive proper representation when prosecuted for serious and complex crime and, I venture to suggest, the police and public officials will feel more confident about using the extensive powers they enjoy in the knowledge that their use is unlikely to be contested by an experienced lawyer - leaving the burden on judges to redress the balance of strong against weak in court.
This may sound extreme – and to some extent I have chosen language carefully to paint a bleak picture - but those in the profession I have talked to in recent months paint a very bleak picture of our future if we lose the talents of experienced lawyers simply because they cannot afford to do this much needed work.
What is ‘justice’ when the strong are well represented and the weak not? Over to you……?
Finally… I leave you with this rather chilling piece by Ian Parker-Joseph of The Libertarian Party UK:
“When Police Commanders are reported to have said of the over hyped expected violence at the G20 marches that they are ‘up for it’, I seriously begin to wonder whether our prediction that the Government, and the Police, are actually looking to provoke the expected clashes.
An article in the Guardian Friday evening tells us:
Is this what you would call responsible policing?”