Developments in legal services often follow a similar pattern. Are current events more like Dracula or Sleeping Beauty?
The prime minister’s wish in his recent Tory Party conference speech that we should all live in a land of opportunity depressed me. That is not because I am against it - on the contrary - but because, as an expression of political philosophy, or even as a differentiation between doctrines, it is threadbare. Where is the originality or considered path?
That is as true of developments in legal services. Some people believe that there are only seven plots for all films, plays and novels. Or maybe there are three, or maybe twenty – there are varying numerical estimates. We read and watch the same thing over and over.
Take legal aid. This might fall under the heading of one of the seven plots of all time, called ‘Overcoming the monster’, which apparently covers works as diverse as Beowulf, Dracula and The Magnificent Seven. We know the story of our own efforts to slay the Grayling monster – and he was not the first, and will not be the last, to roar and growl and lay waste to civilised life. The Monster always announces aloud that he is acting with the noblest instincts – ‘introducing efficiencies, cutting fat, stopping abuse’ – while the big club with nails smashes indiscriminately into innocent victims.
This plot, regrettably, is also found around the EU. For instance, in France, the Paris Bar has just been authorised by its members to call a strike against legal aid cuts. Although the Hollande government gave a nod towards access to justice by removing a €35 fee on court applications, the legal aid budget has been cut by €32m. In Italy, laws have cut legal aid reimbursements to lawyers by 50% in civil and criminal matters. (An Italian judge can reduce legal aid re-imbursement even further if the lawyer has ‘obstructed the trial’s closing in reasonable time’.)
The Netherlands has cut €100m from its legal aid budget over recent years, either by raising the amount of money people have to pay themselves or by lowering the amount of money lawyers receive. In Ireland, there was a 14% reduction in the civil legal aid budget between 2008 and 2011. And so it goes on.
Next, we could look at efforts to deregulate the legal profession. You’ve seen this film more often than the obsessives who go to sing-alongs of ‘Grease’ every weekend. Deregulation falls under another of the seven plots, this one called Rebirth (examples: Sleeping Beauty or A Christmas Carol). The legal profession wakes up from a dream of justice and the rule of law, to find itself stripped naked, wandering poor and hungry through the streets. The UK has suffered its own deregulatory developments. But it is not alone.
For instance, the Netherlands is undergoing reform of its legal profession. A Supervisory Council is being proposed, which would have access to all lawyer data, including client files. The government - the party against whom lawyers litigate most often on behalf of citizens - will assess whether or not lawyers perform properly. Three supervision levels will be put in place, leading to extra costs and bureaucracy.
This week, the European Commission joined the Rebirth plot by issuing a Communication ‘on evaluating national regulations on access to professions’. We’ve read this book, too, and for the nth time. Remember the Services Directive 2006, the various reports of DG Competition all those years ago? The Commission is again calling on member states to assess barriers restricting access to the professions (all of them, not just lawyers). The old familiar ingredients are to be looked at: reserved activities, compulsory membership of professional organisations, access to the profession. Like the Monster in the first plot, only the noblest aims are invoked, never deregulation (of course not).
To cheer ourselves up, I return to the Tory Party conference, and another of the seven great plots, Comedy. Our towering minister of justice had the misfortune to open his conference speech a few days ago with a story telling how he had acted promptly because he had read an item in the Daily Mail. He was not to know that within hours the Mail papers would be shown to have exhibited values rather far from his portfolio (although an astute Mail reader might have guessed).
He had read in the Daily Mail about some prisoners having ‘a lazy, easy time of it’ in Rochester Prison. Showing all the values of Bigger Picture, Grand Vision and Mountain-Tops of Jurisprudence which his job requires, he told the conference proudly, in the fourth paragraph of his speech: ‘Within twelve hours, they were in segregation. Locked up for longer in their cells, not hanging out with their mates. Without a TV. Privileges stripped. Weeks added to their sentences after a swift disciplinary process.’
This is a man who will never be described as having hated Britain. And now I can resume my search for originality.
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