The first event of its kind aims to celebrate the rule of law and promote lawyers’ common values.
For the first time this year, a European Lawyers Day will be held, on 10 December 2014. It aims to establish a national day throughout Europe that celebrates the rule of law and the legal profession’s intrinsic role in its defence, through the promotion of lawyers’ common values and our contribution to the justice system.
A celebration like this is even more important in the light of current events. Europe and the world are threatened either by nationalism or extremism. Nationalism is a valueless proposition: one country is not intrinsically better than another, although the values a country adopts might be better than those of another. That choice is starkly highlighted in the future of Ukraine.
Extremism, on the other hand, is a value proposition, but the values on display – for instance, in the latest military developments of the Middle East – should be rejected enthusiastically.
What has this to do with lawyers? Lawyers around Europe – indeed around the world, but let us begin with Europe – share a value system. We are devoted to the rule of law, and the procedures and values which that requires (due process, no one is above the law, no corruption, fairness, and so on). In particular, we stand for rights under the justice system (right to representation, equality of arms, independence of the judiciary, etc).
At a time when values are either ignored through cynical power-play or rejected in favour of extreme interpretations of religion, the values of lawyers are worth promoting loudly. It is true that a lawyer’s creed is not in itself a universal ideology or religion – it does not tell us what taxes to charge, or the extent of the government’s role in an individual’s life – but it is a self-contained and praiseworthy collection of values supporting an important element in a free and democratic society. In times like these, let’s push that!
The idea is that an annual theme will be chosen for each successive European Lawyers Day, to illustrate how a specific aspect of law affects citizens and their rights. Fortunately, the EU itself is made up of member states which are, by and large, governed by the rule of law. But that does not mean that there are not threats. The theme for this first European Lawyers Day is mass governmental surveillance.
The Snowden revelations of last year showed extensive data mining of email correspondence, telephone calls, instant messaging software and cloud storage by various governments around the world, including in the EU (including, unfortunately, in the UK, too). This has a particular impact on the lawyer-client relationship, since trust and confidentiality lie at its heart.
Each member bar of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) is requested to encourage its members to organise events, publish educational material and/or conduct other programmes that promote citizens’ awareness of the European Lawyers Day theme.
Many are doing just that: conferences, for instance, on the relationship between the use of modern technology and the need for confidentiality; interviews on TV and radio, publication of articles in newspapers, magazines, and websites; a session with journalists and human rights institutions; plus local educational projects – lectures and workshops by lawyers to students in secondary schools.
The day falls this year (deliberately) on World Human Rights Day, which was launched in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly to bring attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all.
Wherever you are, you can become involved. There is a handbook and a poster to assist you. There is little that lawyers can do to alter the horrible denials and breaches of values that we see elsewhere, but if we act collectively in favour of our values, we might justify the famous words of Portia in The Merchant of Venice: ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! – So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’
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