On legal aid and regulation, the country is travelling in a different direction to much of Europe.

Many European bars have annual lawyers’ days. They are occasions for members of the profession to come together for a variety of reasons: learning through seminars, networking with colleagues, and socialising. Some take place on the feast day of the patron saint of lawyers, St Ivo (19 May). Interestingly, they are nearly always events for lawyers themselves, rather than events to tell citizens about the role of lawyers.

I have just come back from the Finnish Bar’s lawyers’ day. They had 1,200 registrants out of 2,000 members of the bar, a very high percentage (the equivalent for the Law Society would be an event attracting over 60,000 solicitors). The age and gender balance was similarly impressive, which no doubt helped with the after-dinner dancing.

I was the only one to give a speech in English – without interpretation, it just being assumed that everyone was an English-speaker as well. (I spoke on ‘Lawyers as a guarantee of democracy’.) Finnish, as you may know, bears no relation to EU languages apart from Estonian and Hungarian, and I did not understand a word. But the speaker who followed me was such an extravagant showman that I listened to him with delight all the same, regretting nevertheless that his hilarious performance was slowly wiping out collective memory of my speech.

To enter the country is in some ways like going through a looking-glass and finding some elements the other way around on the far side. As we know, the sun stays in the sky throughout the night in summer. And taking off your clothes and sitting in a hot wooden box with your friends is the equivalent of going to the pub. I did not leave the hotel complex in 48 hours, but I still learned a great deal about the welcome other-world nature of Finland.

For a start – does the Ministry of Justice read the Gazette? – while everyone is cutting legal aid, Finland has just seen an increase in its legal aid budget. The hourly legal aid fee for lawyers has gone up by 10%.

I was told that it was introduced because of concerns over coverage of legal services in rural areas. In the spirit of full disclosure, it is true that if you look at the statistics from the latest report put out by the Council of Europe (the CEPEJ study of 2013) the per capita annual state budget allocated to legal aid in Finland in 2010 was €10.8 – above the overall average of €7.63 – but four times lower than the UK equivalent. Nevertheless, Finland granted legal aid in 1,557 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with England and Wales’s 1,286 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Secondly – does the Legal Services Board read this? – while much of the rest of Europe is busy deregulating legal services, the Finns are beginning to regulate them. They start from a free-market base, where anyone can provide any legal service without restriction. The UK is pretty free-market, too, but in our country there are still some activities reserved to solicitors and barristers. In Finland, there are none, and being a member of the bar is just a brand in the hope of attracting clients.

The courts were not happy with this state of affairs. They found that unqualified representatives, or non-bar members not subject to ethics and discipline, reduced the efficiency of the administration of justice. And so the government has just passed a law, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, which introduces the need for non-bar members to satisfy the following criteria before being able to appear in the courts: a law degree, a licence granted by a board of the Finnish Ministry of Justice, and either a year’s experience in court cases as an assistant or the passing of the Finnish bar exam. (The law does not apply to those from the state-owned legal aid office, or those assisting their employer.)  

Since it is quicker to pass the Finnish bar exam than to acquire a year’s experience, the number of candidates taking the most recent bar exam doubled. The licensed practitioners are also subject to the bar’s code of ethics and its discipline. The result is that the Finnish Bar supervises these licensed practitioners when they appear in court, but not when they carry out any other legal service. You can see what I mean when I say that Finland is travelling in a different direction to the rest of Europe.

Dreary cliché dictates that travel broadens the mind. Travel to Finland shows that not everyone feels bound by prevailing directions of policy.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs