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Comment: Magna Carta, bribery and a bit of confusion – Global Law Summit starts the countdown

It turns out that hundreds of years of legal history waits not even for Bob Crow so Thursday evening (6 February) saw an opening countdown to the planned Global Law Summit, the sort of Government-backed venture to celebrate the Magna Carta, English traditions of rule of law and the UK’s role as a legal services leader.

As such, a sizeable group of senior figures from across the profession braved a grid-locked London and variable security arrangements at Mansion House to hear a debate on bribery law and flag up the Global Law Summit planned for next year to mark 800 years of the drafting of Magna Carta.

As anyone with passing knowledge of commercial law will know, discussions regarding the Bribery Act have not been in short supply in recent years, so inevitably there was a limit to the amount of new ground that could be covered.

From the debate, which included Balfour Beatty’s GC Chris Vaughan and Kingsley Napley’s Michael Caplan QC, several, not unfamiliar, themes could be gleaned. For one, the Bribery Act has been strikingly and uncommonly effective in policy terms in regards of actually changing corporate behaviour. As Vaughan remarked: ‘Internationally people have heard of it and it is perceived as the gold standard.’

As several panellists noted, the Act has had a wider impact on business and corporate law in general by becoming a focal point for a broader shift towards a more rigorous compliance and corporate governance culture across a range of areas including data security, competition, industry regulation and general conduct. It could be argued that the Bribery Act helped to change the UK legal market from being, until recently, utterly dominated by transactional and commercial work to one in which contentious matters have come to the fore.

Vaughan summed up the shift: ‘There is now a huge focus on integrity in business, a huge focus on business conduct that I have never seen before. Expectations are higher.’

Alongside this were oft-heard concerns about strict liability under the Act, the lack of case law and a proportionate response to facilitation payments, which the Act controversially bans. Linklaters partner Richard Godden put a frisson in the debate given its historical context by stating from the floor that recent moves to toughen corporate oversight amounted to ‘a series of trends profoundly contrary to the rule of law’ in terms of the erosion of notions of presumed innocence, the burden of proof and the need for legal clarity.

Caplan summed up the views of some in the audience by arguing that recent years have ‘moved the goalposts’ in extending corporate liability.

All of which left the guests to file out for a reception where the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling said a few encouraging words and confessed that the idea for the Global Legal Summit had been borrowed from a legal conference in St Petersburg.

What the Global Legal Summit will amount to is currently unclear. As one senior partner confessed to me on the way out: ‘I’m rather confused about what it is they are trying to do.’

On current form it is heavily tilting towards the Bar, the courts and legal industry bodies. Nothing wrong with that in itself but the event will need to use the next 12 months to gain more clarity over its aims and to get substantive involvement from City lawyers. The larger part of the UK legal services market is focused around commercial law – an event over-dominated by the Bar and the great and the good at the expense of at-the-coalface City partners will turn off many and fail many of the people that have made the UK a world leader in law.

The several conversations I have had with law firm leaders regarding the summit have shown a wariness and lack of confidence over the event and the Government’s ability to effectively advocate for the profession. A few conversations I have had with those involved in the venture also suggests there is an element of improvising as they go along, which is partly due to the need to raise money to financially back the venture.

Still, it’s early days and there are some good people involved. The UK legal services market – which has been unfairly overshadowed by our finance industry – deserves some real recognition and not just for its fine barristers and judges. But the jury’s still out on whether the Global Law Summit can do the job.