In February the nation is set to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Well when I say the nation is set to celebrate I am not suggesting there are going to be street parties, an extra Bank holiday and fireworks over the Thames. In fact the nation is set to celebrate by the holding of the Global Legal Summit in London.
Now the organisers describe the GLS thus; “the Global Law Summit is being held in February 2015 to mark 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta. It is a unique opportunity to commemorate, celebrate and embrace 800 years of legal history which have inspired lawyers and non-lawyers alike for generations.” Laudable and inspiring indeed. The event sounds like it will be a paean to liberty and the protections that define….., well…. define Britishness in the same way that cricket, strawberries and cream and a cup of tea do.
Except that it is not. The organisers also had this to say about it “the Global Law Summit, launched by Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Rt. Hon. Chris Grayling MP, is a unique one-off high level business forum supported by the legal profession, business and government. Unlike other legal conferences, the Global Law Summit will bring together a mix of practitioners, business leaders, public sector decision makers and government officials from around the world to discuss, debate, and develop relationships across markets and jurisdictions.” A one-off high level business forum. Notice the way “markets” comes before “jurisdictions”?
So we are left in no doubt whatsoever the Prime Minister describes it as an event “to mark 800 years since Magna Carta, I am pleased that London will welcome global leaders in both business and the law to discuss the issues that are shaping the agenda legally, commercially and socially over the next generation. I am delighted to support the Global Law Summit – it is yet more evidence that Britain continues to lead the way in promoting free enterprise, economic growth, and the rule of law around the world.” Again, note that the rule of law comes after free enterprise and economic growth.
I do not pretend to speak on behalf of the original contributors to the Magna Carta. It may well have been that they had the libel actions of oligarchs firmly in their minds when drafting the words “We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”. However the Global Law Summit has little to do with what most lawyers and citizens would understand the Magna Carta to represent.
I would not attend the event and I would suggest that no lawyer with a concern about the Government’s attitude to the rights of the individual and the availability of legal aid should attend. On the day of the event the professions should walk out of every court in the land and mass outside the conference hall to protest against the restrictions on judicial review, the unavailability of legal aid for children or victims of domestic abuse and to protest against the parlous state of our criminal justice system. That is what should be happening.
But it is not. Instead the event is being held with the blessing and support of the Bar Council and the Law Society. I kind of get the fact that both those bodies represent those for whom international litigation is their business. And business trumps conscience for many. No representative body, big or small, has called for, let alone organised, a boycott and demonstration. The event is happening and it is happening with the lawyers involved.
So what of those who will speak at the event? Is there any point in turning down an invitation? What would I do if I was invited to speak? (Please do not all laugh at once at the thought of me being invited). Well, in the absence of a mass boycott, I would attend and address the summit. And embarrass the hell out of the organisers and the Government. I would view it as an opportunity to highlight the damage being caused to hundreds of years of the rule of law.
Actually forget that. It is not an opportunity to do that, it would be my responsibility to do that. It would be an obligation as a lawyer who sees the damage that is being done on a daily basis. To attend and not lament the recent damage to the rule of law would be rank hypocrisy. And I leave rank hypocrisy to the politicians.
It would not matter that it would be “off message”. It would not matter if it was rude to my hosts. It would not matter if it upset some very powerful people. As an advocate I would relish the chance to make every politician, every civil servant and, although I regret it that I have to say this, every “on message” lawyer in the place squirm in their seat.
The publicity that would be gathered by the Bar Council and the Law Society turning their back in the event has been lost to us. So any lawyer with the chance to speak can only use it to one end. To protest. To protest with power, with dignity and with their conscience clear that they did the right thing.
This is not a time for diplomacy. This is not an opportunity for building bridges. This is a moment for impact and for the power of the truth.
I have not been invited to speak. Those who view their role as protectors of the rule of law, and by that I mean the judiciary, should not feign fear at being political, they should make the politicians fear their stern rebuke. Those who speak on my behalf, those who come from a body representing me, should choose their words carefully. Not so that they mince their words, but so that no word falls from their lips that could give this administration a single crumb of comfort. From the senior Judges there to the Chairman of the Bar Council to the President of the Law Society and beyond, Grayling should be told again and again “you may be a friend to business and commerce, but you are no ally to justice”.
Principle before profit. This is not the time to advance a business case or self interest. This is the time to stand up and say “no”.