Lord chancellor delivers speech at president David Greene's inauguration

Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP, lord chancellor, delivered a speech on 14 October to mark the inauguration of president David Greene as the 176th president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Introduction

Well thank you very much indeed, and It’s a huge pleasure to speak today at David Greene’s inauguration as the 176th president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Many congratulations to you, David, on your appointment. Let me also take this opportunity to extend warm and sincere thanks to Simon Davis for his sterling work over what has been more than the last year, and indeed to all at the Law Society for the strong, constructive relationship that both I, and my Department, enjoy with you. I look forward to continuing to work closely with you in the year ahead.

Coronavirus response

That David takes office today, and not in July, is of course a reminder of the disruption we have all experienced this year in the face of coronavirus. In the early days of the pandemic, I, as Lord Chancellor, was keenly aware that there are instances where justice simply cannot wait, and of the intrinsic need to ensure that justice could continue to be done.

I have been committed throughout, therefore, to keeping the wheels of justice turning, whilst ensuring the safety of those who use our courts, and I am extremely grateful to all those who have demonstrated their own commitment and determination.

There is, of course, more to do but we have made significant progress. Last month, Magistrates Courts completed more cases than they received, thereby reducing the backlog. And in the Crown Court, over 180 rooms can now be safely used for jury trials and we are listing over 200 trials per week. We’ve already installed plexiglass screens in over 300 rooms and we are on target to safely open 250 Crown Court rooms for jury trials by the end of this month.

And I’ve also unlocked vital capacity by opening 12 Nightingale Courts to provide 18 extra court rooms, and this month we will be opening 5 more sites, creating a further 9 courtrooms.

But court recovery will require support from the entire sector, and we can’t deliver this plan in isolation. I am immensely proud of the profession for the enormous effort that so many of you have made to ensure that this has been possible – it has taken collaboration, resilience, and great flexibility to adjust to new ways of working – from using phone and video technology to enable remote hearings, to putting in place and adhering to social distancing measures to allow some hearings to continue in person.

We’re now working more flexibly than ever. Indeed, delivering this speech remotely to you today is just another reminder of the ways in which society has had to adjust. But ours is a justice system which has long demonstrated its ability to adapt to meet the ever-changing needs of society. Digitisation, for example, was a priority of mine long before coronavirus hit, and will be ever more crucial now in our continued success.

With that in mind, I announced a further £142m investment in the courts system, in July of this year, in order to speed up technological improvements, modernise courtrooms, and upgrade the court estate.

Whilst we have made sure that the justice system has kept moving over the last few months, however, I know that we will need to do more in the face of this unprecedented challenge, to bring down the current accumulation of cases. But rest assured that I, and the Government, are committed to continuing to do what is necessary to support our world-class justice system.

Rule of Law

The success of this system is thanks to two fundamental principles of our constitution, which act as guardians of fairness in our society: an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

When I took office as Lord Chancellor, I swore an oath to uphold and respect these principles, and I want to take this opportunity today to reassure you of my continued commitment to my duties under that oath.

There has been much heat in recent weeks about lawyers, with strong words on both sides. Let me put a couple of things straight:

No, the Government is not acting beyond the law, and secondly the practicing lawyers, solicitors, barristers, and legal executives that I know leave their politics, if they have any, at home, and don’t bring it to the office, to chambers, to the robing room, or to court.

Social media has created a new platform for the promotion of often very political statements by lawyers. This can lead to misunderstanding, and sometimes harassment, threats and worse. Whilst we should not be shy of robust debate, no-one should be vilified for doing their job, whether we be public servants or professionals in private practice.

Lawyers play an important role in upholding the law, representing their clients - and their sometimes political views - and ensuring that people have access to justice, and I, and this Government, are absolutely clear that any form of violence or abuse against lawyers is utterly unacceptable.

All of us in the profession have a responsibility to each other and I will continue to play my part to enable lawyers to play our vitally important role in society.

Trade and global competitiveness

It is this country’s commitment to the rule of law that is one of the drivers behind the sterling reputation of English and Welsh law, and the success and competitiveness of the UK’s legal sector.

As you will know, legal services in England and Wales contribute over £25bn of GVA to the economy. The law is one of our greatest exports, with legal services posting a trade surplus in 2018 of £6.5bn, and with 40% of all global corporate arbitration using English and Welsh law. This global success remains at the forefront of my mind as our negotiations with the European Union continue, and the Government remains committed, absolutely committed, to working hard to agree a deal.

There will, of course, be changes that both businesses and the Government need to prepare for, whatever the agreement we reach with the EU on our future trading relationship, and I would like to thank you at the Law Society for working so closely with us to help ensure that the profession is ready for those changes.

The recent webinars preparing the sector for the end of the transition period, for example, have been extremely well attended, and are a great example of collaborative working between my Department and the Law Society to support the sector.

I am extremely grateful to you, too, for working with us as we negotiate free trade agreements across the world, and I know my officials have greatly valued your involvement and contribution. I was delighted that the Department was able to grant you £80,000 recently to support your international work, and I look forward to continuing that work with you to further our international ambitions.

And on that note, David, I’d like to wish you the best of luck in your presidency.