I have travelled a good deal for more than 15 years, either on behalf of the Law Society or for my current employer, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). Since this has been paid either wholly or now in small part by solicitors, it is time to unburden myself of the lessons learned for the benefit of my paymasters.
I am always puzzled as to whether the saying ‘travel broadens the mind’ is true, because one conclusion I have drawn is to agree with the old chestnut that people are the same everywhere, no matter how odd their dress or customs. It is a relief when coming across lawyers whose governments are demonised in our press (formerly countries behind the Iron Curtain, now from the Middle East) to discover that they might as well be our neighbours in Sevenoaks or Harrogate. Even their lifestyles as lawyers are familiar. The only exception I can remember is when I went to a provincial town in Romania a year or two after the death of Ceausescu, and found the ill-dressed lawyers there so poor that the small, battered car they had kindly brought to pick us up from the airport broke down and had to be pushed to the side of the road.
Of course, if you dig deeper you see that similarities hide deep differences. I have just come back from a trip to the bars of Estonia and Latvia. Among the issues which arose were a legal aid scheme which does not adequately remunerate lawyers, and what to do about the provision of legal services by unregulated providers. Familiar? We are all in the EU, subject to the same overarching laws. But – and here the paradox of travel begins – although we seem alike, our histories often determine that we are travelling in different directions and just happen, at this moment (and the moment may last for years or decades), to be more or less in the same framework.
Take Estonia and Latvia. Since they came into the EU from out of the shadow of oppression by their giant neighbour Russia, they long to be part of the EU to cement their European identity. Indeed Latvia, just recovering from a serious economic crisis, is due to join the eurozone at the beginning of next year. Even on this brief trip, over 20 years since the end of Russian domination, we heard stories of what lawyers suffered during Communist times – this one sent to Siberia, the other’s family deprived of all money and land (only partly restored when the Russians left). The exhibitions in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991 tell a devastating story. So these lawyers are travelling deeper into the EU at the same time as we (with our different history as a much larger country with a recent, grand imperial past; not occupied for a thousand years) are pulling away, and might actually leave altogether.
In other words, apparent similarities should be probed, through an examination of history. We must be sure that, although we might be sitting in the same room sharing our common problems as lawyers today, we might be about to depart through different doors, never to sit in the same room again. (Before the eurosceptics jump in, I do not see this as an argument to leave. I believe that it is obvious that our future lies together, but for different historical reasons again – the increasing globalisation of recent decades.)
Travel always brings country-specific lessons. The European Commission recently published a ‘Justice Scoreboard’ with a number of comparative tables on how EU legal systems perform against each other on certain indicators. In the category of the extent to which member states use electronic systems to manage cases, England and Wales came in 16th out of 29 (not 27, because of the three jurisdictions in the UK). Scotland fared better in 12th. Interestingly, the country which came top was Estonia. Estonia has a remarkable system, of which it is very proud (‘we developed Skype here’). The process works through their citizens’ ID card – I know, anathema to many UK citizens – permitting a range of electronic transactions. These include national voting, collecting prescriptions, pre-paying public transport - and secure legal transactions. It is widely used, and highly praised by everyone, including lawyers. I visited the national demonstration centre, and you can find out more at the e-Estonia site.
So what is my conclusion? Everyone is exactly the same, but deeper reflection shows that some similarities are just temporary coincidences, as we travel in directions determined by our different histories.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs