The death of lawyers has been greatly exaggerated, but a concerted bid to sideline them from dispute resolution is real cause for alarm.
The legal profession is remarkably resilient. Every couple of years the government passes legislation that has lawyers scurrying in panic: every time the sector seems to come back stronger.
When Richard Susskind published The End of Lawyers? in 2008 the number of solicitors practising in England and Wales was around 110,000; right now we have more than 138,000.
Predictions of the demise of lawyers, to paraphrase Twain, have been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent.
Whereas in the past the concerns were that some lawyers would be inadvertent casualties of reform, now the fear is they are outright targets.
Take last week’s Ministry of Defence consultation on claims by armed forces, which declared the ‘presumption’ that a claimant will not need legal representation because the assessor for these cases will help him or her to bring forward all the information which needs to be considered.
I’ve written before that the online court – despite attempts from its creator Lord Justice Briggs to offer morsels – is purposefully designed to oust lawyers from the process.
Whereas past concerns were that some lawyers would be inadvertent casualties of reform, now the fear is they are outright targets
Briggs wrote in his report of developing a court which ‘maximises its prospects of increasing access to justice for litigants without lawyers’. He talked of a court ‘designed for navigation without lawyers’ and said he expects it to require ‘minimal assistance’ from lawyers. The government appears to be keen.
The government’s compulsion to increase the small claims limit appears expressly designed to take lawyers out of the process of personal injury claims. The justice ministry's claim that those providing affected services (ie those whose jobs will be threatened) can be ‘assumed to find alternative economic activities’ was telling.
The difference seems to be now that the public (those who realise what is happening) is happy with such attacks on the profession.
When our own armed forces are being denied legal representation, and instead forced to apply through the MoD itself for compensation from the MoD, we know that public opinion is not minded to back the lawyers. No doubt they may change their tune when faced with a computer screen telling them they have lost their case, or when they come to bring a £4,000 PI claim on their own.
Are the Private Frazers warning of doom in the legal profession really just paranoid and echoing previous doom-mongers? Perhaps. But the tone of attacks – and public apathy towards them – is something new. Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean legislators aren’t after you.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor