Turning back the clock to last autumn, we knew the annual intake to the Faculty’s renowned training programme for aspiring Advocates was special. Little could we have known it would become truly historic.
There had been concern that financial strains might have been putting off some people from committing to the programme, or becoming “devils”, as our intrants have been called for centuries. The training is provided without charge, but the devilling period is unpaid. For most, that means giving up the ability to earn a living for several months, while still having mortgages and the like to meet. Moreover, as with any self-employment, there is no guarantee of income once admitted as an Advocate.
Faculty reviewed its scholarships and, most notably, introduced a new scholarship, named after our eminent former Dean, Lord Hope of Craighead. It is funded by voluntary contributions from practising members, and was responsible in part for the total number of devils in 2019-20 standing at 26, the most anyone could remember.
Fast forward to the present, and history is made as 16 of the group officially joined Faculty in a calling ceremony like no other in our 500-year history.
Traditionally, the calling ceremony has two parts. First, friends and family throng the Faculty’s Reading Room to watch intrants admitted by Faculty as members. The second sees a procession to a courtroom within Parliament House where proceedings are interrupted to allow the judge to administer the declaration of allegiance and welcome the new members to the public office of Advocate.
In a world turned upside down by Covid-19, tradition on this occasion had to give way to social distancing, and a switch in venue to the spacious and magnificent Parliament Hall, where in centuries past courts used to convene with the judges sitting in alcoves.
For the ceremony, a judge sat in the Hall – for the first time, we believe, for more than 200 years. Addressing the newly-called Advocates, Lord Arthurson said: “We live in strange and testing times…But what these present days have taught us, inside the law and outside, is the desirability of being flexible.”
Flexibility has become a necessary attribute of any litigator. The move to video consultations and court hearings, rapid adoption of entirely electronic papers and difficulties of serving documents in a post-Covid world, have all presented challenges and demanded innovation. All aspects of the Scottish legal profession have shown themselves ready and willing to face these challenges, although, of course, there is more to be done. In particular, the need to get criminal justice back up and running is a pressing concern. In that regard, it is gratifying to see jury citations have been issued for the resumption of High Court trials in July.
As the country eases out of lockdown and the economy rumbles back into life, these challenges will persist. There is a backlog in all types of court business, and that will be added to as the decrease in criminality caused by lockdown ebbs away, and as claims of all types (divorce, contractual claims and judicial reviews seem likely to rise) flow in. A primary concern is to ensure that litigation remains available to all – whether party, witness, solicitor or counsel – notwithstanding Covido-19. Courts and parties will have to adapt, with the safety of all those taking part the paramount consideration. That in turn means, even when courts reopen as is envisaged, participation by video conference is likely to remain part of the litigator’s lot for some time to come.
There will be another ceremony this week for the rest of the 2019-20 devils, conducted in similar style. This year’s newly-called Advocates accordingly enter a world that would have been unimaginable when they first embarked upon devilling. But adaptability and innovation have been core attributes for successful counsel for a long time.
So, our newest members have come to the Bar in unconventional style. The challenges faced during devilling will equip them well for the challenges of practice in these strange times. Meantime, the calling ceremonies for the Class of 2020 will, I hope, be unique: we all, I am sure, look forward to a world in which we can welcome the newly-called with something more heartfelt than a socially-distanced wave.
Roddy Dunlop, QC, is Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Advocates