A fireside chat

Published on: 12/05/2021

Introduced by Guy Beringer QC (Hon), once senior partner of Allen & Overy, this panel consisted of Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, and Lord David Wolfson QC, once of One Essex Court, of the Ministry of Justice.

Three strands dominated this fireside chat; one, on the importance of English & Welsh law internationally; secondly, access to justice, and lastly, diversity and inclusion

Wolfson started the discussion, focusing on the role legal services played in international trade and investment. His MOJ, post-Brexit, wanted to remove barriers that hindered the ability of lawyers to trade internationally.

In championing London as a centre for international disputes, working with both professional bodies, he flagged the UK government’s own work with potential trade partners; citing both the recent Memorandum of Understanding with India, on liberalising legal services, and the MoJ’s own recent work in promoting UK-Africa legal services.

Hailing the judiciary’s work, through the Standing Forum of International Commercial Courts, Wolfson smoothly extolled the virtues of English commercial law, by now well-rehearsed. Everyone, noted Wolfson was “working together to make sure that London and the UK retain their place as the pre-eminent centre for global dispute resolution,” despite increased competition.

Boyce, for her part, noted London’s place as a global legal centre, with over 100 jurisdictions and 200 foreign law firms represented here; but also explained the Law Society’s campaign to recognise England & Wales as a jurisdiction of choice – from dispute resolution clauses in contracts onwards.

Sweeting flagged up the outreach work that the Bar had been doing. Sometimes, he said, it was essential to work with government; other times, the professions were better off working to catalyse relationships themselves.

Agreeing with Wolfson, he added that the lingua franca of English as a medium for business transactions was also a significant attraction, as was the UK’s role in developing financial services innovation.

The connection between the City, finance, and innovation was a vital one in keeping London at pace as a legal centre – a point not lost on Wolfson, who endorsed the Master of the Rolls’ agenda for change as being “a great step forward”.

Boyce demurred slightly from Wolfson’s enthusiasm for digital change; while “technology has provided a glimpse of how we can work in the justice system of the future,” there were those who did not have access to that technology, or for whom it would not be suitable. All those who needed it, should be able to access the infrastructure, hardware and connectivity needed to ensure all society could access the justice system.

Sweeting’s view started from a different perspective. The domestic strengths of England & Wales as a jurisdiction were what also made it, in his view, equally strong as a capital of international law and dispute resolution.

While welcoming the chance to share a platform with the MOJ, there were times, Sweeting reminded Wolfson – and his audience – “to have a robust conversation about what investment is required in order to ensure that we do have this provides access to justice,”, which was what a real partnership meant.

Wolfson’s rebuttal was to focus on justice itself, and reminding his legal colleagues that the MOJ was not a ministry for legal services, or lawyers, but allowed access to the justice system for everyone, “not only because it’s right financially, but because a proper justice system is a cornerstone in civilised society”.

That meant different ways of delivering justice – in line with the Master of the Rolls vision for delivering justice, discussed previously – and Wolfson left his audience in no doubt he recognised the value of ADR, as had Sir Geoffrey Vos.

Be that so, Boyce responded, the system had to be financially sustainable for justice to be effective, noting cuts to legal aid and the sustainability of that sector, given the shrinking numbers of lawyers working there, a point with which Sweeting visibly agreed.

Beringer neatly steered the discussion to diversity and inclusion. Here, Boyce – the first woman of colour to hold the role of president of the Law Society – was frank; there was much to be done.

“There is no one button to press”, Boyce noted – but if there were to be more diverse arbitrators, judges, and solicitors, then the Society had to achieve greater diversity, first at entry level to the profession, while also enabling retention and progression within the profession.

Her mission as Law Society president was to make it as inclusive and diverse as possible; “but each and every one of us must play our part”, noting that new qualification regimes for solicitors would assist this- but so too, should law firms and businesses.

That theme was taken up by Sweeting, who said: “If we do have a system which doesn’t look like society at large, there’s a reason why parts of that society, particularly minority parts, don’t feel confident when they have to deal with that system,” as well as missing out on possible talent. Along with diversity, inclusion was important; professionals should feel included in their chosen occupation.

Wolfson, speaking personally, agreed with both, stating his own commitment to social mobility, through his work as a patron of a charity, Big Voice London. The professions had come a long way, he said – and so too, the judiciary – but other areas, such as arbitration, “were not a very diverse bunch”.

That could be improved upon, Wolfson said, because arguably, more diverse panels made better decisions. Improving diversity in arbitration was a challenge; the ICC and LCIA were trying to change this, but “most arbitral tribunals are not particularly diverse in their composition”.

Boyce responded by noting that change was slow in terms of representation among senior associates, and later partners, particularly for women and ethnic minorities. Allocating work on a more diverse basis would help affect diversity.

Businesses, too, she said, “are beginning to move the dial and ensure that we have measurable positive impactful change,” in this area; lawyers, she said should “ensure that we can work together to ensure that measurable change really make a difference.”