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Law not like ‘any old commodity’, Lord Neuberger tells LETR

New Supreme Court president warns legal education review team against overly consumerist approach

16 November 2012

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The provision of legal services is not like “any old commodity”, Lord Neuberger has said in a direct attack on the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) last night.

It remained “an open question”, Lord Neuberger (pictured) said, “whether the hypothesis that the present system is not fit for purpose is anything other than assertion, whether it is made generally or in respect of aspects of the system. There is real reason for doubting whether there is that much wrong”.

Giving this year’s Upjohn Lecture, the new president of the Supreme Court challenged the assumption in the review that the current legal education framework was inadequate.

The real issue, he said, was not so much whether the system was fit for purpose but “what reforms should sensibly be made”.

Taking aim at LSB chair David Edmonds for encouraging the LETR team to come up with radical recommendations for change, Lord Neuberger said this suggested “a conclusion that major reform is both necessary and proportionate, reached in the absence of any evidence and analysis”.

Instead, Lord Neuberger went on, the regulators should reflect on the legal profession’s raison d’être before embarking on wholesale reform.

Those involved in assessing the need for change will otherwise run the risk of damaging the unique characteristics of the profession, which are founded on “protecting and promoting the public interest and with the rule of law”.

As it stood, he said, the review was misguided in its description of its fundamental aim as directed to only two of the regulatory objectives: the interests of consumers and a diverse and effective legal profession.

By singling out these two objectives, the LETR had provided itself with “a deformed theodolite” for its research, which would likely result in a report making a case for reform that would be “unbalanced or worse”.

While acknowledging that lawyers should not be banned from seeking to maximise their profits and provide a competitive service, the review should not focus exclusively on promoting consumer interests and on the development of law as a trade.

“By treating the law as any old commodity, we cast aside its fundamental role and purpose, its raison d’être, and we undermine the rule of law and our democracy,” he warned.

“In the absence of very clear and cogent evidence of widespread and deep-rooted inadequacy in the present system, radical reform, as opposed to appropriate, targeted reform, should be avoided”, he continued.

Such targeted reform would include developing the existing relationship between solicitors and legal executives, and extend that relationship to the Bar.

Building on the current CILEX route would also offer “a good model” for non-graduates interested in entering the profession.

The former banker also suggested ethics and practical training could be imparted earlier on in the curriculum.

This could involve the development of new teaching methods, such as the virtual learning environment created by Professor Paul Maharg for the Scottish Legal Practice Course, and so-called clinical programmes where second- and third-year students provide pro bono advice to members of the public, as developed by Hull university.

Vocational training could also be reformed to include greater business awareness.

In a final shot at the LETR research team, Lord Neuberger warned that the review should not seek to unify the training of solicitors and barristers “as a means of achieving fusion of the two professions”.

“The fact that fusion may be thought by some to be a good idea does not justify the present review of legal education and training being used as a stalking horse for advancing it,” he said before concluding: “Any attempt to use this review as a means of taking forward fusion would, I suspect, result in any proposals being discredited in many peoples’ eyes, and understandably so."

 

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