One Charter that rules them all?

By Frances Edwards, CILEx President

-The run up to the General Election gave us all an opportunity to think a great deal about power.

800 years ago we had a feudal society, where power was unchecked and the rich and powerful were able to dominate the lives of the weak and poor. In retaliation, King John was made to seal Magna Carta by twenty five barons who were in effect threatening a coup if he failed to enshrine their demands in law.

Even though Magna Carta didn’t last for long, it began a centuries-long process of establishing the rule of law; where today the tyrants of the real world are limited in their power, and can be held to account. This anniversary is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reflect on the rule of law, as it differs from the rule of power.

Whilst power may be the reserve of the rich and influential, it is generally held today that the law should not be. Everyone is subject to the law – that is the pervading legacy of Magna Carta. However, at the root of many of the problems facing the law today is that the law, and lawyers, are seen as elite and distant.

One rule for everyone?

Law in this country is quite inaccessible; we have multiple sources of laws, and they are produced in huge quantities, and often in complex and indecipherable language. For decades the key mechanism to make that inaccessible system more accessible has been lawyers. Our job as lawyers is to bring the people and the law closer together, to demystify the law, and make it applicable for the person in front of us.

This is important because we have seen what happens when people feel our laws and institutions, which are the embodiment of our society’s values, are not accessible or relevant to them. They feel like outsiders, without a stake in our society. It can lead to the belief that the rules belong somewhere ‘over there’, and don’t apply to ‘me’. We saw this in the riots of 2011 – a sudden outpouring, catalysed by a belief many people held, that they did not have a place in our institutions, our laws, or our society.

The role of lawyers

That experience was a reminder that all people have to feel a part of our institutions and laws. In my mind one of the instruments that brought people and the law closer together, more than perhaps any other instrument in centuries, is Legal Aid. Before 1949 access to the law relied almost exclusively on your own wealth, or the generosity of the lawyer. The numbers of Citizens Advice Bureaux, established in the run up to the outbreak of war, nearly halved in the 1950s and in a relatively short space of time the high street law firm became a kind of community asset, with lawyers seen as natural community and institutional leaders. I mention institutions specifically, as lawyers to this day form a sizeable proportion of our establishment; in our justice system, of course, with judges drawn from legal backgrounds, but also our political institutions.

Of the MPs of the 2010-2015 Parliament, one in every ten were lawyers. If that proportion were an accurate cross-section of our society, it would mean there were 6.5 million lawyers in the UK, more than 30 times the actual number. Considering they are law-makers one can reasonably expect a higher than average proportion of lawyers, but they are primarily supposed to be a democratic reflection of our society.

I say this not to argue that there should be fewer lawyers involved in public life, far from it, but instead to illustrate that our institutions draw heavily from a small pool of legal professionals. Lawyers hold an important and influential presence in our society, and have done since before Magna Carta. So if the people we are here to serve feel lawyers are elite or remote, that risks trickling upwards into our judiciary and political establishments. Some would say it already has.

The out-of-touch lawyer

Serving the increasingly diverse population of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has posed challenges for all professions, but cuts to legal aid and law centres has once again put the lawyer out of reach of vast numbers of people. As guardians of Magna Carta’s legacy, we lawyers have a responsibility to prevent the creeping perception that the law is owned by an established elite.

Social mobility and diversity play an important role here, and just as law should not be the reserve of the rich and powerful, nor must the practise of law. Lawyers from diverse backgrounds, whether that be social, economic, ethnic, religious, educational, or any other background, have to be present to give our profession legitimacy. CILEx has spent more than 50 years breaking down barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to practise in law. 86% of our lawyers had neither parent attend a university, just 2% had a lawyer parent. The openness of our route has led to three quarters of our lawyers being women, and one third of our new students being from black, asian or ethnic minority backgrounds.

We have been able to do this because CILEx does not impose artificial barriers to entry; either academically, financially or structurally. CILEx students are able begin their studies without any prerequisite qualifications, can study at their own pace, fitting learning in with other commitments and responsibilities, and the costs are a fraction of what it is to become a lawyer through more traditional routes. CILEx lawyers, known as Chartered Legal Executives, are specialists in their field, educated to degree level, and considered experts in their specialist area by their colleagues. We have challenged the preconceptions that to learn in a flexible manner must be to lower standards.

Now I could repeat what I have written in this magazine previously; that we do all this to broaden opportunities, to make a more diverse legal community, and to serve the public – but that would be to overlook the more fundamental reason: we do what we do in order to bring the people, and the law, closer together.

The law today

What took place at Runnymede 800 years ago engendered legal principles that circled the world. However the implementation of those principles, and the practise of law, is under threat. Providing opportunities for lawyers from all backgrounds to practise will help give lawyers legitimacy with the public, but without affordable legal services it will all be for nothing. Cuts to legal aid, rising court fees, and fewer avenues for free legal advice are all serving to inhibit access to justice. This needs tackling now, before it becomes so endemic that people only see the legal profession as a necessary evil to be dealt with, or worse an irrelevance.

Magna Carta taught us that everyone is subject to the law, but embedding the message that the law belongs to everyone is made harder when our lawyers are seen as exclusive, and made impossible if the law itself is inaccessible. This will never change unless we change it. This is a time for us to be leaders again – not of institutions, but of communities.

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