Don’t let lawyers’ reputation go the way of politicians’ – Woolf

Topics: Civil justice,Personal and professional development,Judicial

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A former lord chief justice - and one of the architects of the modern civil justice system - has expressed public concern that the reputation of the legal profession is under threat.

Speaking at a conference in London today, The Rt Hon Lord Woolf (pictured) said one of the biggest challenges facing the legal sector is to uphold its standing with the public.

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Asked about whether he would encourage young people to be a lawyer, Woolf said it had been a ‘privilege’ to practise and warned this should not be lost in future.

‘I would hate to think our standards would sink below the standard I know so the reputation of the profession was to be tarnished,’ he said.

‘No matter how enthusiastic we may be things happen which really worry me. Things happened in the political arena which have challenged the reputation of politicians.

‘We have to take great care we don’t damage the occupation that I love. We can discard practices [that are] no longer relevant but cannot ignore standards.’

During a wide-ranging discussion at the SJ Live event, Woolf expressed his ‘regret’ at the need for McKenzie friends to step in to help those who cannot get legal representation in the conventional way, although he noted that some can provide ‘great assistance’.

Woolf voiced concern that the volume and scale of inquires into historic child sex offences, notably the ongoing Goddard inquiry, threatens funding for other areas of justice.

‘My fear is they are sucking huge amounts of resources away from the normal role of the justice system. We should be putting ordinary needs at the heart of the justice system first.’

But on the issue of whether increased court fees could help plug the funding gap, Woolf said the government should act ‘responsibly’ and maintain proportionality.

‘[Fees] should not place a burden on a particular section of the community.’

Woolf, whose civil justice reforms came into force in 1999, advocated efforts to change the system and said the reform process should be ‘continuous’.

As a member of parliament’s joint committee on human rights, the judge was asked about government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights.

He said: ‘The present Human Rights Act serves us well but I am not entrenched. It is critical it should not be a bill which provides inadequate rights. If we have a new British bill of rights we are going to have a lot of work to do in the courts and as lawyers to absorb the new bill.

'Day in and day out, the courts have dealt with the Human Rights Act and accumulated a wisdom about applying it. We have, over time, seen things that have not have been constructive and tried to put them right. [Under a new bill of rights] there is going to be great uncertainty which will take a number of years to work out.’

Readers' comments (27)

  • Some think that the Woolf reforms are one of the reasons the profession has a poor reputation.......

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  • look patrick, it's the wolfster

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  • Woolf's reforms were made with the best of intention. They did provide a framework for swifter case management. However they collided with the introduction of CFA's and the costs of litigation soared.That was not his fault but HM Govt and the ignorance of judges when it came to applying the idea of 'proportanality' - a meaningless and indefinable concept.

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  • RICH ! From the man who first picked up the hammer and nails whilst eyeing up the coffin!

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  • Lord Woolf's reforms were about permitting access to justice For everybody.

    The government's reforms are concerned with denying it it to anybody who doesn't fit into this governments worldview.

    If anyone of us thinks that permitting access to justice to all and sundry brings the profession into disrepute, then I wonder on what grounds?

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  • "Asked about whether he would encourage young people to be a lawyer, Woolf..."

    ...ducked the question!

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  • I would like to know why Woolf thinks there is a risk to the reputation of the profession.
    Is it because solicitors and barristers are less reputable than was formerly the case, or is ti because regulation has created a completely un-level playing field with competition coming from all and sundry, who are subject to different, or no, regulation, and the profession being exhorted to be "more business like"

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  • 'Woolf voiced concern that the volume and scale of inquires into historic child sex offences, notably the ongoing Goddard inquiry, threatens funding for other areas of justice'.


    Well I have to say that I find this particular paragraph totally unacceptable and what's more utterly disturbing in its context.

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  • There was nothing wrong with the old White and Green Books that a bit of tweaking couldn't put right. In fact it happened quite regularly with Practice Directions.

    Lord Woolf wanted a legacy...and now he has it. Sow the wind, My Lord, and you reap the whirlwind.

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  • Neville,

    Woolf's reforms were about discouraging litigation, not about access to justice at all.
    He believed that by having cases "hearing ready" before issuing, it would discourage"chancer" cases.
    What he did not realise is that many cases settled before or after issue, but before being "hearing ready' because the issues had been crystallised, and competent solicitors would properly advise as to settlement, thus saving court time, and costs all round.
    His intervention forced costs up, and therefore less access to justice, because he did not understand the practicalities of litigation.
    He was warned by at least one eminent QC that this is what would happen. Notice taken.....none....

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