Speakers at the opening session had different ideas about the meaning of simple words.
Gazette team members have been reporting live from the Global Law Summit. At the opening session, one of us finished writing up the gist of an august speaker’s words while the other began taking notes on the next – with laptop computer, conference programme, paper notebook, phone and camera, it’s the sort of 90 minutes that makes you think you need a larger lap.
The hall was packed, and the applause for each speaker seemed genuinely enthusiastic. Each had variations on the same themes that they identified as flowing from Magna Carta to the present – notably including access to justice (especially cost), enforceability and fairness.
Cost is the point where speaker-concern seemed most dissonant. When the lord chief justice Lord Thomas references the ‘cost’ of justice as an issue, it is clear that he is concerned that the cost of using the law for a just result is beyond those of slender means – the system seems prohibitively expensive to them.
When the lord chancellor, Chris Grayling, references the cost of the system, he means something quite different – the cost to government of fairly superintending disputes and criminal justice, and the burden on state and businesses as litigants.
And the relationship identified between justice and incarceration by Grayling and another speaker, US attorney general Eric Holder, is again quite different.
Holder has presided in a drop in the US’s federal prison population, recognising, as he sees it, the duty of the justice system to help break the destructive circular relationship between poverty, crime and incarceration.
The trends on Grayling’s watch suggest he is more in the incarcerationist camp.
To take another point, when Thomas talks about ‘inconvenience’ as the greatest threat to the principles of justice, then even in the corporate sphere he is talking about the temptation to pick a convenient winner, rather than have the hassle of going through a determinative result.
Governments championing their own businesses in foreign deals might be rather complicit in that: the sort of operating environment that another speaker, the president of Kazakhstan, is keen to ditch but which, in a competitive environment, presents daily challenges.
Unlike a governmental summit, there is no agreed communiqué to come out the other side of the GLS, so these refreshingly divergent views survive the process.
Encouragingly, the hall didn’t empty after the opening session – it was also packed for a discussion on ‘business and the rule of law’. Corporate power, and corporate competition, is the arena absent from the original Magna Carta, and is now at the sharp end of the dividing lines outlined above.
These days, the standards to which companies adhere matter as much as those of government, and in facing up to the ‘risks’ of operating environments that are in places ‘lawless’, they grapple with choices very relevant to the conference’s theme.
Put simply, do they seek to make their operating environment safer and more predictable by being aligned to the dominant executive power in a jurisdiction? Or do they find enhanced confidence in ‘fidelity’ to an environment that, in Holder’s words, can ‘venerate and vindicate’ those bits of Magna Carta we have decided are our favourites?
Governments and citizens have a role here. But the questions on the rule of law and justice GLS delegates have been asked to consider – the how, why and when – depend on corporate behaviour and instincts. Let’s hope that those present, representing 110 countries, are able to take some decent answers home to their clients and governments.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor