A former lord chief justice - and one of the architects of the modern civil justice system - has expressed public concern that the reputation of the legal profession is under threat.
Speaking at a conference in London today, The Rt Hon Lord Woolf (pictured) said one of the biggest challenges facing the legal sector is to uphold its standing with the public.
Asked about whether he would encourage young people to be a lawyer, Woolf said it had been a ‘privilege’ to practise and warned this should not be lost in future.
‘I would hate to think our standards would sink below the standard I know so the reputation of the profession was to be tarnished,’ he said.
‘No matter how enthusiastic we may be things happen which really worry me. Things happened in the political arena which have challenged the reputation of politicians.
‘We have to take great care we don’t damage the occupation that I love. We can discard practices [that are] no longer relevant but cannot ignore standards.’
During a wide-ranging discussion at the SJ Live event, Woolf expressed his ‘regret’ at the need for McKenzie friends to step in to help those who cannot get legal representation in the conventional way, although he noted that some can provide ‘great assistance’.
Woolf voiced concern that the volume and scale of inquires into historic child sex offences, notably the ongoing Goddard inquiry, threatens funding for other areas of justice.
‘My fear is they are sucking huge amounts of resources away from the normal role of the justice system. We should be putting ordinary needs at the heart of the justice system first.’
But on the issue of whether increased court fees could help plug the funding gap, Woolf said the government should act ‘responsibly’ and maintain proportionality.
‘[Fees] should not place a burden on a particular section of the community.’
Woolf, whose civil justice reforms came into force in 1999, advocated efforts to change the system and said the reform process should be ‘continuous’.
As a member of parliament’s joint committee on human rights, the judge was asked about government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights.
He said: ‘The present Human Rights Act serves us well but I am not entrenched. It is critical it should not be a bill which provides inadequate rights. If we have a new British bill of rights we are going to have a lot of work to do in the courts and as lawyers to absorb the new bill.
'Day in and day out, the courts have dealt with the Human Rights Act and accumulated a wisdom about applying it. We have, over time, seen things that have not have been constructive and tried to put them right. [Under a new bill of rights] there is going to be great uncertainty which will take a number of years to work out.’