On 4 July, Simon Davis became the 175th president of the Law Society of England and Wales. He took over from former president Christina Blacklaws.
He delivered his inaugural speech at the annual general meeting at the Law Society in Chancery Lane, London to senior members of the profession, press, officials, parliamentarians and the public.
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Thank you, Paul for your introduction and to all of you for being here this evening.
It is a great privilege to serve as the 175th president of the Law Society of England and Wales and one I could not possibly have imagined when I took my first nervous steps, as an articled clerk, into the reception of the firm then known as Clifford Turner, having navigated my way past the travel agency which occupied the ground floor.
Some thirty-five years ago, I was admitted into this wonderful profession in this very room. I listened to the words of Lord Nicholas Browne-Wilkinson presiding over the ceremony. He made it absolutely clear to all of us newly admitted solicitors that we had achieved something quite extraordinary and we were embarking together on a professional career of privilege and duty in the service of our clients and public.
Together with my fellow office holders, I now preside over those same ceremonies, admitting a wonderfully diverse range of solicitors from all walks of life, nationalities, religions, sexualities, genders and even ages. They are accompanied by their families and their partners and a most moving occasion it is too.
And I remind them that the fabric of society depends on legal rights and obligations, benefits and burdens, being validly created and effectively enforced. I tell them that at the heart of every right and obligation is the law maker, the law adviser and the law enforcer, which from now on, means you, the solicitor, described recently in the book The Secret Barrister as “the guiding light from dawn to dusk”.
And the role of the solicitor in upholding the rule of law is perhaps more important today than ever before.
The impact of the financial crisis of 2008 continues to reverberate around the globe with there being a widespread collapse in public confidence in institutions, politicians and experts.
In this context, the main themes for my year in office will be:
- promoting the role of solicitors in upholding the rule of law
- sustaining an open profession and jurisdiction, and
- building a top-class profession in which all solicitors, whether they work in a firm or in-house, offer the best services to their clients
At the same time, I will continue to ensure that the Law Society campaigns robustly for a modern and affordable system of justice, while working to uphold human rights across the board.
Upholding the rule of law
Ethical obligations of solicitors
So, what does it mean to be a solicitor? It means upholding the rule of law. It means being held to high ethical standards and acting with integrity in all that we do, wherever we do it and whoever we do it for.
A client trusts that a solicitor is someone who is honest, who has integrity and who will give them impartial, clear and expert advice. As an officer of the court the solicitor is also obliged to put their responsibilities to the court ahead of their responsibilities to the client. It is crucial to judges to be able to rely on solicitors standing before them to tell the truth.
The importance of ethical standards to our profession is illustrated vividly when we see what happens on the rare cases where a solicitor has fallen short of these standards. It can, rightly, be career ending. Reassuringly, the recent Annual Report of the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal records that only 1% of the profession finds themselves before the Tribunal.
During my presidency, I will continue to promote the ethical standards of solicitors and introduce focused training programmes for the profession which will have ethics at their core.
Upholding the rule of law
As the body representing solicitors and with a statutory public interest role, part of the Law Society’s overarching purpose is to safeguard the rule of law in the best interests of the public and the client.
We are there to be the voice of our clients, and sometimes of the voiceless who are not able to access justice. To do this, we help the under-represented speak for themselves, helping the public and decision makers understand the real-life impact of laws and policies.
The Law Society also has to stand up for our own solicitors when they are being criticised for their role in upholding the rule of law. Earlier this year, when a solicitor received death threats following his work on a high-profile criminal case, we worked with Clive Coleman to give the solicitor the opportunity to set out the crucial role he, and the profession, plays in such cases, at fixed fee rates which have not increased since 1998 – and in some cases actually fallen.
And although we are the Law Society of England and Wales, we regard our responsibility for standing up for the rule of law as extending beyond our shores.
We do not shy away from the responsibility to stand up for lawyers facing persecution wherever they are in the world. Here at home our lawyers are broadly able to go about their work without fear. But in some parts of the world, simply by standing up for their clients and their legal rights, lawyers place themselves at risk of imprisonment and death. I will not embarrass the countries in question, but the Law Society has intervened in a number of jurisdictions across the globe where lawyers have been persecuted just for doing their job.
Access to justice
Due to many years of underinvestment by governments of every hue, our criminal justice system is crumbling.
We see that things are going wrong at every level – impacting on the accused, the victims and the professionals who work hard across the system.
We have been campaigning for years, highlighting the fast-falling numbers of solicitors working in criminal law and the advice deserts which exist across the country, and how the rising numbers of litigants in person is a grim indictment of the lack of funding.
But the tides are changing: a survey published by the Law Society found that the public now values our system of justice as much as it does our National Health Service. The latest LASPO review led for the first time in many years to an injection of cash, and an acknowledgement that further reviews are required. Much more needs to be done, but the direction of travel is slowly changing, and I am quite sure that this is in large part due to the efforts of the Law Society professionals.
The Law Society will also intervene in cases where we see there are potential threats to fundamental rights. Last year, we intervened to protect the client’s right to legal professional privilege – a vital element of the rule of law. Our intervention in Serious Fraud Office v ENRC case assisted in an important ruling by the Court of Appeal affirming legal professional privilege as a fundamental right and a principle central to the administration of justice.
An open profession
I was inspired to join this profession by a scintillating talk I heard aged 17 from a criminal specialist solicitor from Wokingham. I am sometimes asked whether I would encourage my children to become solicitors and the answer is absolutely yes. It is a treat to be a person who others come to for their problems to be sorted out and to keep them out of trouble. I have seen the talent within the profession throughout my career and I want to ensure that anyone who possesses the desire and ability to become a solicitor can do so. And no, my children have not shown any interest, yet…
And as we celebrate of 100 years of women being able to enter the legal profession, I am proud to be taking the baton from Christina to ensure that the abilities of men and women are recognised throughout the profession.
Last month, we launched the ‘Women in Law Pledge’, an initiative led by the Law Society, the Bar Council, CILEx, and leading firms and legal businesses from across the profession. We are delighted it is being supported by the Ministry of Justice.
Signatories to the Pledge commit to work together to address gender inequality. I will be urging law firms and legal businesses to sign up and enforce this pledge with practical steps throughout my presidency.
During my presidency, we will also be relaunching our Diversity and Inclusion Charter to encourage and support firms in turning their commitments to diversity and inclusion into positive, practical action for their businesses, staff and clients.
An open jurisdiction
Our legal profession is part of an international community and we are proud of being one of the most open in the world. Some 200 foreign law firms have offices in the UK and almost 6000 of our members work in foreign owned firms or abroad.
With the backdrop of the UK’s changing relationship with the EU, it remains crucial that we seek to attract the best talent from across the globe and that we are able be part of cross-jurisdictional teams, resolving cross jurisdictional issues.
We will continue to make the case to the new prime minister that the UK should seek to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Trusting for the moment that there will be a deal, I will seek to persuade the new government that this must include market access for legal services and civil judicial co-operation mechanisms which allow consumers, families and businesses to gain access to justice across borders.
Whether the UK leaves with or without a deal, there will be a need for the UK to establish a new relationship with the EU. I will continue to engage with my counterparts in EU bars and law societies to maintain and develop further a close relationship in the interests of the rule of law and our respective professions.
Regardless of what form our ultimate relationship with the EU will take, the UK will continue to enjoy the unique strengths that make us a global legal centre. Through our global legal centre campaign, I will continue to promote the strengths of English law, our jurisdiction and the quality of our legal services internationally.
As I said at the beginning, it is a huge privilege to have been chosen to serve the solicitors’ profession as its 175th president. This profession is dynamic, innovative, world class and an integral part of the administration of justice. We are here to fight the corner of our clients, from the vulnerable to the global giant – all in the public interest.
I will work tirelessly to ensure that the solicitors’ profession is known for delivering the highest quality legal services and upholding the rule of law. The legal backbone of society.