In the last few weeks, two things have happened simultaneously. First, the government has said that it wishes to continue with the statutory underpinning of rather close supervision of the legal profession. Second, the government has said that it does not wish to begin the statutory underpinning of close – or even distant – supervision of the journalists’ profession.
Regarding the journalists’ profession, much high-flown rhetoric made it into orbit: that our freedom is guaranteed by it, that it is the bedrock of our democratic society, and so on and on. I saw no comment from the government that the reason why this question had even been raised was unconnected with freedom, but had come about because journalists had trashed minor celebrities and grieving victims through criminal means, assisted by collusion (sometimes also criminal) between government, police and journalists. I don’t recall any government minister mentioning that the ownership of the media is controlled by just a handful of people.
Regarding lawyers, the background to the statutory underpinning of close supervision of the legal profession has never been entirely clear to me, although I have followed it carefully. Of course, I read the Clementi report, but why did the whole Clementi investigation start in the first place? Because complaints against lawyers were not handled expeditiously and thoroughly? - but then everyone agrees that the Press Complaints Commission has been a complete disaster in handling complaints, even the press agrees to that. Because the economic structure of the legal profession was not open and modern? - but the media, as I have said, are owned by a handful of wilful men who own newspapers and other outlets for reasons which have nothing to do with the good of the country.
There is an excellent - I would say unanswerable - argument to be made that interference with the independence of the legal profession is as damaging to the structure of freedom and democracy as interference with the independence of the press. So why does the government interfere with one while refusing to interfere with the other? I am fully aware that the sixth of eight ‘regulatory objectives’ of the Legal Services Act 2007 is to encourage an independent legal profession; it is just that the government does not trust lawyers, and so appoints people (a majority of them non-lawyers) to ensure that. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the difference of treatment between journalists and lawyers is that it has nothing to do with principle - oh, what a shock, I think I have to sit down - and all to do with government by cowardice.
We have seen this similarly with the banks. For years now, the scandals have come thick and fast: the reckless lending which prompted the economic crisis; the looting of near-bankrupt banks by gigantic bonuses to senior staff; the Libor rate-fixing; the money-laundering fines in the USA. There has been nothing remotely comparable to this in the legal profession. Yet the recommendations in the Vickers report will not have to be complied with until 2019, and the government plays a cautious game when regulation of the banks comes up at EU level.
I realise that I should be more cynical. It was always this way with governments. Thrash the weak, kowtow to the strong. Their soaring rhetoric is just a speech from some well-known play that politicians have a weakness for repeating. It is not descriptive of reality.
I have a vision of the future for the legal profession. It is one where lawyers ride horses with the prime minister and send him playful text messages throughout the day; where lawyers decide on a whim not to back the government any longer and from that day drown the government with endless lawsuits to ruin the government’s reputation; where lawyers collude with the police to come up with gossip about government ministers’ private lives that they then use for their own economic advantage.
That is the day when it will not be Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, but the prime minister himself, who announces that the government has decided that there is no longer any need for the Legal Services Board; that interference with the independence of the legal profession was a major mistake of principle by the last Labour government; that independence of the legal profession is indeed vital to the freedom and democracy of the British people. Wake up, lawyers: you need to start taking horse-riding lessons!
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs