The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, has warned regulators to hold back from radical change to legal education and training. Neuberger warned that too much emphasis on consumer interests could undermine the rule of law.
The Legal and Education Training Review, set up by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards is due to produce a final report next month.
Giving the Upjohn Lecture on Thursday, Neuberger feared the stated primary objective of the review, to advance regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act, may leave the report ‘unbalanced or worse’. He urged the review to start by equipping lawyers with the knowledge, skills, integrity and sense of independence to play a proper role in maintaining the rule of law.
He added: ‘If we exclusively focus on promoting consumer interests, on the development of law as a trade, by treating the provision of legal services as any old commodity, we cast aside its fundamental role and purpose, its raison d’etre, and we undermine the rule of law and our democracy.’
Neuberger said he disagreed with Legal Services Board chairman David Edmonds, who said earlier this year he would be ‘extremely disappointed’ with minor changes. Final conclusions, Neuberger stated, should be based on analysis of the evidence and made with an open mind.
‘There is real reason for doubting whether there is that much wrong. UK lawyers enjoy a high worldwide reputation. Places on our university law degrees, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, are highly sought after. Research and publications of academics in our universities are of high value and enjoy international recognition.
‘Our courts and our substantive law are prized throughout the world – not only by those who seek to litigate in our courts, but also by those who seek our judges and lawyers out to assist them in the development of their laws and justice systems.’
One possible reform Neuberger did support was developing the existing relationship between solicitors and legal executives. Greater co-operation between the regulators of both groups could facilitate the use of The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives as a route to qualification as a solicitor, he said.
This would also help to improve diversity in the legal profession at a time when increased university fees may deter some students from studying law.
Neuberger said the professions should not be the ‘whipping boys and girls’ for the government to blame for inequalities in society.
But he added: ‘Any proposed reforms to the structures or contents of legal education and training must take into account the need to improve diversity, both in those actually undergoing the education and training, and in terms of the contents of the education and training they receive.’
Neuberger also advocated greater collaboration between universities and law practices, with clinical programmes providing pro bono advice to members of the public. Neuberger said a second phase of the report may be necessary, focusing on the practical and professional aspects of legal training.
This stage should include all representatives of the profession, including the judiciary and organisations such as the Legal Ombudsman and Legal Services Consumer Panel.