Your excellencies, distinguished guests, my lords, ladies, gentleman, can I start by extending a very warm welcome to all of you at the start of the Global Law Summit.
Today, in this room, we have representatives from 110 countries around the world; over 100 ministers, attorneys general, chief justices and other leading international legal figures are here. In total, over 2000 delegates are taking part. I don’t think there has ever been a legal summit quite on this scale before, and I am pleased that the UK is hosting what is a very important and truly international event.
More formally, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I would like to welcome you to London and thank you for taking the time to attend this event. And a particular thank you to those who have left far warmer climates to come to London in February.
I would also like to give a welcome and thank you to my fellow speakers: Sir David Wootton, the co-chair of this Summit, Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice.
And in particular our visiting speakers: Attorney General Holder, the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Angel Gurria from the OECD. That you have made time in your no doubt busy schedules, and travelled many thousands of miles to be here is a testament not only to how important Magna Carta is around the world, but also to your own commitment to its values of justice and the rule of law.
Before going on, I should also welcome leading legal figures for whom the UK is home, from the judiciary, bar, leading city firms and also regional firms representing interests not just from London but across the country.
And whilst I don’t want to spoil the surprise, we will shortly be hearing from a very talented British actress, an Oscar nominee, but not here with tales of Hollywood, instead talking about the work that she does with a fantastic organisation that helps children in some of the most difficult and dangerous circumstances around the world. I am delighted that the Global Law Summit is supporting War Child, I am equally delighted that Carey Mulligan is with us today, and I would like to thank her for her commitment to such an important cause.
This event is the beginning of a whole year of celebrations to mark 800 years of what is quite a remarkable document – the Magna Carta.
That document, signed on the fields by the Thames at Runnymede in 1215, as part of a truce between King John and his feuding barons, has become a foundation stone not just for our legal system, but for many other countries too. Nation after nation now derive their legal traditions from that piece of parchment.
Within that document you will find cornerstones of our legal system.
No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it. The principle of a fair trial that survives to this day.
We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs or other officials only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well – a principle that still underlies our system for appointing our judges today.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. A pledge to keep a corruption-free system that remains vital to this day.
However, ladies and gentlemen, not everything stands the test of time. Some of the provisions are definitely a bit time expired.
Like the promise by the King that he will stop taking firewood from his subjects without their permission. Or that he will remove fish weirs from the River Thames.
But those core principles agreed 800 years ago are still the heart of the legal values and traditions of this country. Indeed, one of most remarkable legal minds of last century, Lord Denning, described Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
I am proud that Magna Carta has been one of the UK’s greatest exports: it has inspired and formed the basis of so many legal systems and it is cited and invoked whenever and wherever basic freedoms come under threat.
I am also proud that the great legal tradition continues. The United Kingdom is respected throughout the world for the strength of its legal system, for the skills and knowledge of its judiciary and courts, for its consistency and stability as a legal jurisdiction.
And I am clear, as the Lord Chief Justice has said – a thriving legal system and respect for the rule of law go hand in hand with economic prosperity. In fact, they are the necessary foundations on which a strong and resilient economy is built.
In the UK, the legal sector contributes over £20 billion to our GDP, employing over 300,000 people. And UK law firms play an important role in the success of international businesses worldwide.
In London, we have a centre of legal excellence that is rival to any other great city in the world. I would like it to stay that way.
I believe that this is best achieved by continuing to innovate, developing our legal system to keep pace with the world around us; continuing to grapple with difficult issues, learning from others and their experiences; but always remaining firmly rooted in the principles of Magna Carta that have served us so well to date.
That is why I am pleased to endorse this summit as a forum for leaders and legal experts from around the world to share ideas, knowledge, make contacts and develop their legal systems, businesses and economies.
The next 3 days will provide an opportunity for debate and discussion about the future shape of the law. You will hear a whole range of different perspectives from within the UK and elsewhere. You will hear from those who want change, and from those who want no change.
But what’s clear to me looking back at the history of our legal system in the UK is that no change is seldom an option. Change can be driven by conflict, by economic reality, by social change and enlightenment – and when it comes it is often profoundly unwelcome. But whatever the needs for change, those principles from 1215 remain as central and important today as they have ever been.
I would therefore encourage you to all embrace and make best use of this unique opportunity to debate the future shape of the law, and I hope also enjoy some of the great sights and venues of this great city.
I’d now like to hand over the floor to a man who has been one of the most distinguished holders of his office. A man who is respected internationally for the work he has done. And someone who has been a good friend to the United Kingdom throughout his years of office.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder.