Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It’s a very great pleasure to address this annual dinner and I am very grateful to CILEx for hosting such a wonderful event.
CILEx plays an important role in our legal sector and I have been pleased with how it continues to innovate to deliver legal services.
CILEx is also striving to extend the practice rights of its members, which will enable a new generation to provide legal services.
But first off, I want to take a little time this evening to talk about the challenges that the profession faces.
It is undoubtedly a very difficult time for the legal profession.
The enormity of the financial challenges the government faces means change has been and will continue to be inevitable.
Let me start by giving you a little context.
Four years ago the government was borrowing one pound in every four that it spent. You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to work out that if any one of us was doing that, we would go bust pretty quickly.
Taking no action was not an option.
The recovery that is beginning to appear has not happened automatically or by accident – you only have to look around the world to see that. Britain is on the way back because of the difficult choices this government has made.
We have had to deal with that challenge at a time when there are immense upward pressures on cost as well.
Top of that list of pressures is something that is a positive for all of us – we are all living longer. But it in turn presents a big financial challenge for our society as we face the cost of that increased longevity, in the form of higher pension and health and social care costs.
But that is not the only challenge.
People on the minimum wage or close to it have faced big increases in household costs. So we’ve needed to ease the tax burden on them. We have reduced income tax for 25 million hard-working people on low and middle incomes. That does not come without a price tag, but it is the right priority to help people at a time of financial strain.
These are big problems, without simple solutions.
Society has deep rooted social challenges. So we’ve needed to fund extra support for children arriving in school from the most difficult of backgrounds. These are young people where if there is no early intervention, the chances of them ending up in the justice system just goes up and up.
All of that leaves a simple reality.
- That the public sector and the services it delivers have to change dramatically
- That salami slicing current budgets is not the answer
- That we have to find new ways of delivering what we do for less
Not all of these are changes are ones I welcome or would wish for – but they are a reality of the days in which we live.
And as many people in this room know, the justice system has not been - and cannot be - immune from the changes that are needed or the pressures that are upon us.
I’ve heard it said that all this change is not necessary… That it is simply a factor of a non-lawyer Lord Chancellor who does not understand, respect or care about the legal system.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As I have said, dealing with the financial challenges we face is not a choice but a necessity.
It has nothing to do with my lack of legal qualifications. Indeed, my predecessor, himself a distinguished QC, was no less convinced of the need for change than I am - and indeed many of the changes that have already taken place, particularly in relation to legal aid, were initiated by him.
I happen to believe that not having a legal background does allow me to look afresh at some long standing issues in our justice system.
I am enormously proud of, and have immense respect for, what is the greatest legal system in the world.
I want to preserve that which has been established over the past 800 years.
But it is precisely that desire to ensure that the legal profession has many hundreds more great years ahead of it that makes me so convinced that we must talk about the challenges we must face up to.
The pressures that have built up on our legal system are not the result of decisions taken by one politician or politicians.
They have been building for years, have been accentuated by the financial crisis, and if they remain unaddressed they will do long term damage to justice in this country.
That cannot be allowed to happen, and it is why everyone involved in British justice must now grasp the nettle and make sure that our system is in good shape as we live within our means.
Don’t just take my word for it. No lesser figure than the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas, made a powerful speech recently setting out how he believes the system needs to change.
And neither of us believe that we need to undermine eight hundred years of legal tradition if the way we do things adapts to meet the realities of today.
Take the example of advocacy in our criminal courts.
I have listened carefully to stories of young barristers fighting for scraps of business in the magistrates’ courts, and of some deciding to abandon their profession because it is just too financially tough.
That’s not because of a battle over the level of fees in the crown court. Magistrates’ courts fees have not been affected by the current debate. It is because there are now, unfortunately, too many people chasing too little work.
The work done by Sir Bill Jeffrey for the Bar Council, the Law Society, and the Ministry of Justice on criminal advocacy makes clear that the number of advocates working in our courts has risen significantly in recent years, whilst the level of crime has fallen… meaning the only conclusion that can be reached is that there are many more advocates than there is work for them to do.
Put simply, there is not enough money or work to go round. That is a challenge which the legal profession will have to face up to. Sir Bill has put forward some interesting, and in many cases compelling, recommendations for change. I am keen that we have a thoughtful dialogue about this.
Then there is the question of court process. I am not someone who believes that we need wholesale change to the principles underlying our court processes. Things like trial by jury are central to our system of justice.
But there is no doubt that the legal process has become more involved and more complex over the past generation, and that we need to challenge it and simplify it.
If the public purse can afford less for cases, then to counterbalance that change we need to find ways of reducing the amount of work involved in cases as well.
That’s why I am delighted that Sir Brian Leveson, President of the Queen’s Bench division, is now leading a review of efficiency in criminal court process, showing a great lead by the judiciary. And we are supporting them by looking at how collectively we can simplify what happens in trials, including taking parts of the process out of the courtroom altogether. Making better use of technology, for example, must be a central part of the future. It can save both time and money.
The government is injecting significant capital now to boost the technology and infrastructure of our courts service. We are doing so because we understand that we cannot hope to achieve greater efficiency and lower cost in the long run, without the tools to make it possible.
This investment opens up new and exciting opportunities for those working in the justice system, to take a fresh look at the services you provide and the way you provide them.
It is a time of change in the family courts too. Sir James Munby is already doing good work to secure a greater degree of transparency in those courts, and he has a strategic vision for the future.
It is obvious to me that the changes to the public funding available for those using the family courts is presenting new challenges.
That is why we have provided funding to assist litigants in person; we are doing more to promote public awareness of mediation and will very soon be starting a pilot scheme to provide DNA, drugs and alcohol testing in private family cases. Changes we make do have consequences – we cannot ignore that, and we must be prepared to respond.
This changing world also means big challenges for smaller firms of solicitors in particular. The combination of legal aid reductions, the burden of regulation and competition is making life difficult for the sector – I know that.
But I do believe there is scope for real innovation to ensure that the public can access the full range of quality, local professional services on their high street. But that is not just a task for government… in fact I don’t believe government is really the solution to this problem.
I want to see the professions coming together, and taking the action necessary to meet the challenge.
I believe we need change to regulation as well. I have been persuaded - without it has to be said too much difficulty - that there is too much of it… that it is too time consuming and intrusive, particularly for smaller firms.
My aim is for a simpler, easier to understand regulatory framework. One that is proportionate, promotes growth and innovation, while also providing the necessary protection for consumers and the wider public interest.
I also think there are too many layers of regulators. I have said to Sir Michael Pitt that during his time at the Legal Services Board, success means creating an environment where that organisation is not necessary in the long term. This will not happen overnight but I am clear that this should be the direction of travel.
In the meantime, I have asked for a clear message from the legal profession about quick wins that would make a real difference now, as well as in the long term. I still very much want to hear your answer.
This changing world creates, I believe, a great opportunity for CILEx members. It is a world which will need greater flexibility, and different skill mixes.
High quality, legal services are essential to providing a sound environment in which business can thrive. A competitive market in which these services are available at an affordable cost is a huge benefit to UK business and a contributor to economic growth.
In addition to leading the way in changing how we deliver legal services, CILEx also offers one of most flexible routes into the legal profession and this is reflected in its diverse membership.
Achieving a more diverse legal profession is something I am committed to and I commend the progress that has been made in opening up qualification routes to students and practitioners from backgrounds where the legal profession seemed previously beyond reach.
So it’s a time of real challenge, but also one of opportunity – and we all need to embrace the need for change.
That should not be a knee-jerk change for change sake … but it should be purposeful, thoughtful and considered, based upon evidence, discussion and debate.
It requires the professions and the government to work together. It requires respect and hard work on both sides. But only by rising to the challenge, and making real change will we respect our legal history and secure our justice system for the next 800 years.