Lawyers must serve both clients and the public, says James Wolffe
Recently, a ceremony was held to mark the completion of a major refurbishment of Parliament House, home of the Court of Session, Scotland’s national civil court. Anyone who has not visited Parliament House should do so, if they get the chance. Parliament Hall – where the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament sat – is of unrivalled magnificence. Throughout the summer there will be a public exhibition in the Hall, which rightly describes Parliament House as a “Hidden Gem”.
The glory of Parliament House lies not only in its architecture, but in the work which is done within its walls. When you visit, you must marvel at the grandeur of the Hall; but you should also look into the courts. Day and daily, justice is being administered in those courts. To the casual visitor, the process is often rather boring – far removed from television legal drama. But it is that unexciting, essential work which secures that we, in Scotland, live in a free democracy governed by the rule of law.
When the Court of Session was established in 1532, it was established as a College of Justice, and its judges are known as Senators of the College of Justice. The College includes not only the Senators, but also the Faculty of Advocates, the Writers to the Signet and the Society of Solicitors to the Supreme Court. The College is, thus, an institutional acknowledgment that judges, advocates and solicitors are all engaged in a common endeavour - to secure justice for the people of Scotland.
Since 1532, Scots law has been articulated and its principles defined and refined through the decisions of the Court of Session. It is one of the responsibilities of that Court to keep our law fresh and up to date. Judges can only fulfil that responsibility when they are deciding the cases which come before them. Judges depend on the skill of professional advocates to elicit evidence effectively and efficiently and to articulate their clients’ cases persuasively and cogently. In our system of justice, it is the creative impulse of the professional advocate to identify, and lay out before the judge, all the arguments which can be advanced in support of the client’s case which is the engine of legal development.
Our ancestors have handed down to us not only great buildings like Parliament House, but our system of law. It is our responsibility in this generation to maintain them both, and to pass them on to our successors – if possible, in better shape than we found them. Hand in hand with the refurbishment of Parliament House is a major programme of court reform. The Faculty of Advocates may disagree with certain features of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill, but that should not obscure its support for measures which are aimed at improving the working of the courts.
Institutional reform is not enough, though, to safeguard the long-term future of our legal system. Nor is it simply a matter of adjusting particular rules to reflect modern circumstances. We must seek to maintain and foster a legal culture which values excellence and high standards of professional conduct – a legal culture which is committed to justice for all in our society. We must resist those who would characterise justice as a commodity. We must insist that lawyers belong to a liberal profession, which puts service to client and to the public above commercial or private considerations.
• James Wolffe, QC, is Dean of the Faculty of Advocates www.advocates.org.uk