Trials highlight problems of funding and representation.

The relationship between the commercial and the publicly funded elements of our society is a complex one – but as attenders of the Gazette’s roundtable on the bar reflected, it is none the less tangible for that.

Commercial barristers like Michael Todd QC, a former chairman of the bar, worry about the health of the publicly funded bar for the same reason that they keep a weather eye on the independence of our justice system.

The lucrative work they win abroad, or from foreign clients litigating in London, is awarded on reputation. Even when handling arbitrations in Dubai or Singapore, barristers have their roots in a jurisdiction that inspires confidence when it comes to the rule of law.  

To talk of the ‘rule of law’ or to refer to it as part of the nation’s ‘soft power’ in the world can at times sound pompous. But the down-to-earth reality is that the legal system’s credibility is an export – and a very important one.

The problems of funding and representation that have attended the Operation Cotton trials show the danger of neglecting the health of the legal system. Investors and businesses value the UK as a secure place to do business, where wrongdoing can be identified and dealt with fairly. This is part of the City’s prospectus; an offering ably promoted around the world by, among others, London’s current lord mayor, solicitor Fiona Woolf.

In the Cotton trials, legal aid cuts have so far done very public damage to a reputation for fairness and law enforcement that has, quite wrongly, been taken for granted.