The Law Society announced this January that it was starting a research process to investigate the Law Society’s potential relationship with historical slavery, so as to understand the extent to which the Society may have supported, financed, facilitated or benefited from – either directly or indirectly – historic slavery through its activities during the 19th and early 20th century.
A statement like this is usually a cue for outraged positions to be taken on either side of the culture war, and I can hear questions being raised as I write. I should therefore state my own position before continuing: I agree with the project, and will give the reasons. But before that, I have some comments.
First, the National Trust has just been through a similar exercise. It released a report last year, pointing out its properties’ direct and indirect links to colonialism and historic slavery. Thousands of people responded, taking strong attitudes on various sides. The Charity Commission was brought in, and published a report last week, clearing the National Trust of a breach of charity law.
The Charity Commission had interesting comments nevertheless about how charities need to be mindful of the impact of their actions on people on whose support they rely, and recognise the wide range of legitimate views and sensibilities that exist within the public.
The Law Society does not have the same status, but the words are applicable nevertheless. This is one of the reasons I am writing this piece, because I believe that the more discussion, the better. Our members will doubtless have strong views, and the fruits of the research should not come as a surprise at the end.
My next comment is about the historical time lapse. Others will point it out if I do not. Whereas the National Trust clearly has properties which go back before slavery and whose funding can be attributed to the fruits of slavery, the Law Society received its current Royal Charter in 1845, which is after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807 - although slavery itself persisted in the colonies until the 1830s.
However, the Law Society’s origins lie in other organisations, first the Society of Gentlemen Practisers, which was founded in 1739, and then in a first ever general meeting in 1825 when resolutions were passed to establish the ‘Law Institution’, which eventually became the Law Society. So there is a case for an overlap, strongly fortified when it is considered that the wealth, values and other consequences of slavery continued to have an impact on British society for generations.
This gives rise to another question. Why is the research restricted to historic slavery? I note that the National Trust report covered both colonialism and historic slavery, and colonialism clearly continued after the establishment of the Law Society. Does the Society’s research avoid colonialism because slavery is agreed by all to be an evil, but the wrongs of colonialism, or specifically British colonialism, are still fought over?
Some solicitors may ask: where does this sit in the priorities of the Law Society? They may believe that with the pandemic affecting law firms and courts, with the legal aid crisis, and potentially significant regulatory changes in the air over quality of legal services and those who are currently unregulated, the Law Society should be throwing its resources into those critical questions. Well, of course, the Law Society is doing just that – plenty of resources, and plenty of policies to support solicitors.
The research itself was proposed by the Law Society’s Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) network, and will be overseen by a steering group of members of the network and staff interested in the project from across the Society. So I assume that much of the resource will come from the BAME network of solicitors.
The final question of some may be: what does this have to do with the Law Society today, two centuries after the abolition of slavery? This brings me to the nub of my argument. The main reasons why I support the research is not to relitigate the past with the values of today, but because it helps us with our current problems as solicitors.
First, actions taken centuries ago still have a vivid impact on many lives, and continue to shape our society (and our profession). The fact that the BAME network proposed the research should cause us to reflect on that.
But second, and to me most importantly, the legal profession is now involved in issues which may one day be seen by our descendants as extremely troubling. They are not comparable to the horror of slavery - few issues could be. Each moral challenge will inevitably be different. The potential consequences of climate change are an example. Knowing about how we behaved in the past can help the Law Society deal with the moral challenges of today.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member, nor on behalf of the Law Society
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