President David Greene inaugural speech

On 14 October, David Greene became the 176th president of the Law Society of England and Wales. He took over from former president Simon Davis, delivering a speech to mark his inauguration.

1. Introduction

Thank you, Paul, for your introduction, and to all of you for being here (or there!) this evening.

It is a great privilege to serve as the 176th President of the Law Society of England and Wales. I am honoured to be invested while in the virtual company of the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. They do not honour me but they honour the office of the President and the role of the Law Society and its members, our profession.

We have been working with them and their offices almost on a daily basis since March and I look forward to carrying on that work closely this momentous year.

The Law Society was founded 195 years ago in 1825. This building dates from 1831. It has seen many events but not so many of the nature of current times. It is a form of home to many of us. Chancery Lane is not the yellow brick road but this morning I took the advice of Glinda to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz “Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times & think to yourself, there's no place like home”.

Home has, of course, taken on a different hue for all of us recently but I am glad to be in this home, the home of the profession. And we are working to ensure it reflects both our history but also the modern diverse community that we are today. Like the profession we must make this home to all.

From our home, in my year as President, I want to ensure that we:

  • press forward our commitment to the rule of law
  • press forward on access to justice as part of that commitment
  • press forward the value of a diverse profession nationally and internationally

2020 has played host to a seismic shift in the way everyone conducts their business, takes their leisure, and generally goes about their lives.

We have learnt to working remotely and all the technical issues that arise. I am perhaps the first virtual President. By that I do not mean I’m a hologram but I think this is the first inauguration streamed on YouTube. Some of those watching will only be too well aware of my technical failings in joining meetings remotely.

It used to be the Reply All button but now my nightmares involve the Mute button. Whoever said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has obviously never had to manage the mute and unmute button.

This is a difficult time for the profession, and for the country. Lawyers, particularly small firms and sole practitioners, are under unprecedented strain. We have heard much of redundancies and changes in firms. Across all levels: partners, junior lawyers and support staff are all bearing the brunt. This may reflect the effect of the pandemic on our clients but also reflects wider issues such as IT limitations in client facing firms, legal aid process and the operation of the courts. I am reminded “If we want things to stay as they are things will have to change”.

When the times are so uncertain, it is all the more important that people are able to turn to trusted professionals, who they know will advise them on their rights and their obligations, and give them some sense of surety. Solicitors have always been someone to turn to in a crisis, and now we are witnessing a crisis experienced by the whole of society.

In such situations, it is only natural that uncertainty becomes rife. Solicitors, and the Law Society, have worked throughout the entirety of the pandemic to ensure the wheels of justice keep turning. From those appointed key workers in the depths of lockdown, to those helping companies that employ thousands keep abreast of new and changing responsibilities – each have their role to play.

And I have a role to play in supporting them. As the 176th President and senior partner of a general practice I will work tirelessly to ensure that those practitioners who need it most will get help and support from their Law Society. This is a dark hour, but I hope that the Law Society can be a light in that darkness for many solicitors. I want to say that we are here for you, and will do our utmost to give you the help you need.

2. Economic value and vitality

But championing the rule of law and helping people access justice are not the only benefit provided by lawyers. Solicitors are bound by high professional standards meaning we can be relied upon to do the best for our clients, protect their interests and give expert advice to support their lives and businesses - this will be crucial in the economic and societal recovery in the coming years.

Moreover, lawyers make a vast contribution to the economy themselves – to the tune of about £60 billion annual GVA. However, in recent months, many law firms have faced significant hardship when it comes to cashflow, and the economy as a whole is facing recession.

The Law Society’s Reset, Resilience and Recovery is our answer. Through it we are supporting solicitors and firms to reset their practices to best serve their clients; helping solicitors and firms to increase business resilience; and empowering solicitors and firms to drive the recovery after coronavirus. We aim to unleash the economic potential of our profession, to aid in a recovery that will help all.

We have already begun making overtures to the Treasury about key provisions that will help the sector, particularly on lawtech and skills. We are thought leaders in this space – this week we are launching our new project on LawTech and Ethics, examining the accessibility of products and services, data privacy issues, and potential data bias in algorithms.

We have produced a paper and are seeking responses from the profession, something I encourage all to do – many hands may make light work, but in this case they make better policy.

3.Upholding the rule of law

The rule of law is under constant challenge even in advanced democracies, but it is a vital pillar of democracy. The former Lord Chief Justice suggested “it is the rule of law that provides the certainty so necessary for the prosperity of the state.

It underpins our just society by ensuring fair dealing, respect for individuals, particularly important at this time, and peaceful resolution of disputes through access to justice and fair trial. It provides the stability and the framework through which the political changes ahead can be undertaken and resolved.”

The independence of the legal profession, including members of the judiciary and prosecution, is vital in any democracy and necessary to ensure access to justice for all, as well as a proper administration of justice.

Over recent years we have witnessed widespread challenges to public confidence in institutions, the administrative and political process and experts.

Coronavirus, and institutional responses to it, will continue to test the strength of the rule of law and it is therefore more important than ever that people can rely on a trusted group of professionals who protect our rights and freedoms and fearlessly safeguard the rule of law on a daily basis.

It is the nature of politics that there is incentive to criticise individuals who may be regarded as standing in the way of a particular political dynamic. We saw this with the attack on the judiciary as enemies of the people in the Article 50 case. We spoke up then but what is particularly concerning at the moment is when that isolated criticism converts into a rhetorical and general attack on a wide range of the profession such as criminal defence lawyers or immigration of lawyers.

We treasure our relationship with the Government but in turn it respects our obligation to stand up for the rule of law, the independence of the profession and the ability of solicitors for their clients to do their day job without fear of intimidation. Our obligation is to do that for our members and the principles of the rule of law.

They must rely on us to speak out and we must never shy away from our absolute obligation to speak on their behalf.

Legal professionals fight the corner of their clients, whether vulnerable individuals or global giants, all while serving the public interest. We help businesses, charities, and individuals access justice and enforce their rights. If rights cannot be enforced, they may as well not exist.

Lawyers, judges and prosecutors play an essential role in upholding the rule of law and separation of powers the world over.

4. Access to justice

I have spoken a lot about lawyers – our role in protecting the rule of law and the criticisms we can face for it. But we can never forget that what we do is in service to the public, any and all of them. They need us to access justice, enforce their rights, and guide them through the justice system.

We have worked tirelessly with the Government and agencies such as the police, the courts and legal aid authority over the past 6 months to ensure the best possible response to the crisis, in maintaining access to justice.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has brought an already struggling justice system to breaking point. The backlog in the courts, particularly for criminal trials, is seeing justice being delayed for victims and the accused. In civil courts the position is significantly better but delays there stop people from getting on with their lives.

For the legal sector, recovery from coronavirus means taking the opportunity to rebuild our society by guaranteeing proper access to justice for all, and ensuring that our communities emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than before.

Currently over a third of the population lives in local authorities which do not have a single housing legal aid provider. Meanwhile more than 37 million people in England and Wales live in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid provider, including over 7.5 million people aged 65 and over.

The legal aid sector is vital, providing affordable advice to those most in need. But with many legal aid firms already in crisis before the pandemic, and pushed even closer to the brink since, unless urgent steps are taken now it is far from certain that there will even be a legal aid sector to speak of in the years to come.

I will continue the work of my predecessors in making this truth known to Government, in pursuit of the sustainable, durable, accessible justice system that people need and deserve.

5. Lawyers at risk

I cannot conclude without word of the work the Law Society does to advocate for our fellow lawyers in other jurisdictions who face daily persecution and risk for simply doing their job. Having worked with lawyers round the World the work the Law Society does to campaign for those facing persecution is close to my heart and I want to ensure our voice is heard in their defence. We owe it to them that that happens.

6. Conclusion

I cannot overstate the privilege it is to have been chosen to serve solicitors as the 176th President of the Law Society. This profession – this dynamic, innovative, respected profession – have put their trust in me, and I will not let them down.

I am by nature an optimistic soul. I have detailed above many of the wrongs with the World and at this time particularly there is much to concern us but there is always hope. We have all learnt much over the past year.

The world will never be the same but we will harness our lessons to make for a better world. We are preparing not for a new normal but for a new better. In seeking that new better I am not sure I will succeed in blowing the skin off the rice pudding but we will certainly work with the Government to do so basing our attempts on equality, fairness, decency, and opportunity.

We may not know what this year will hold, but it’s certainly going to be a one to remember. Perhaps by the time I have completed the year the better future will have arrived.

Thank you.