Here at Legal Business we like to set the agenda, so we’re feeling ahead of the game in pointing out shortcomings with this month’s Global Law Summit, the government-backed initiative to celebrate the 800-year anniversary of Magna Carta and British traditions of the rule of law.
The event has been attracting mounting controversy, including last month a scatter-gun attack in The Telegraph (who knew that Telegraph Media Group were such staunch socialists?) and wider criticism of elitism (some fair, some not).
My problem with the event isn’t its celebration of the commercial importance of the rule of law or the role of the legal industry – that’s entirely valid as far as I’m concerned. The problem was that a full year ago it was obvious that the event was confused on its agenda and format, leading to a programme that risks pleasing no-one.
Discussing the event with those working on it in early 2014, the sense was also there that the organisers had misread the profession and were unsure how to gain its support.
This meant a lack of inclusivity, with not enough key figures attracted up front, partly because the organisers were pursuing a play-for-pay model at the expense of wider engagement. Nothing wrong with bringing in substantial private funding to cover the event – it would be inappropriate to ask the taxpayer to stump up – but given the quasi-governmental status of the summit, monetising the shindig should have been better balanced with bringing in a broader crowd along with the corporate shilling. The lack of inclusion of US lawyers and law firms given the huge constitutional regard paid to Magna Carta stateside likewise looks odd and out of step with the current shape of the profession, and as usual the speaker list has too many barristers.
It is also unclear why the three-day event wasn’t more clearly compartmentalised. An obvious approach would have been to have a day heavily focused on commercial law, another on the historical significance of Magna Carta, and a third on the contribution of legal aid and criminal lawyers. Instead the programme is a blur of differing agendas, mixing unhappily at times. Likewise, the high ticket price was a PR gaffe waiting to happen that could have been easily managed with a bit of common sense.
But in many ways the summit was built on shaky foundations. There will always been finely balanced arguments on funding justice and I try to avoid knee-jerk criticism of legal aid reform. But overall the current Ministry of Justice under Christopher Grayling is very poorly placed to marshal such an event given its policies on legal aid, judicial review and human rights.
No doubt it will be fine by the time the event rolls up – there are some good names and a certain momentum usually carries these things through. But it could have been so much better – a rallying cry for the great British success story of legal services, a success intrinsically bound up with the rule of law and legal traditions, and a chance to recognise what the differing branches of the profession still have in common. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.