Back in 1979, the Gazette reported Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street with a huge front-page picture of Lord Hailsham, her first lord chancellor, magnificent in wig and robes (those were the days when we had real lord chancellors).
Obiter will be interested to see how legal London says goodbye to the Iron Lady as her gun carriage rolls past Temple Bar on Wednesday. Thatcher of course was one of us: in a career switch from science she passed her bar exam in 1953 and practised in tax law for five years. Her legal training was evident from the start of her political career, for example in her forensic handling of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, a measure introduced in her maiden speech.
And it’s fair to say that the legal establishment got off fairly lightly from the Thatcher years. Its turn for a handbagging came only at the very end of her premiership, when the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 granted rights of audience to solicitors, introduced the principle of ‘no win, no fee’ to English law and created the office of Legal Services Ombudsman.
Alas, the 1990 act does not even get a mention in Thatcher’s 900-page memoir. However, her long-serving chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson recalled that the administration felt that restrictive practices in the legal profession were ‘a particularly ripe subject for critical scrutiny, not least because no previous government had ever dared touch the subject’.
Obiter notes that more recent governments have shown more daring – but it was Thatcher who started it all.