Comment: United by our shared sense of justice

Scotland's Lord President, Lord Gill, delivered the opening speech on the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession. Picture: TSPL
Scotland's Lord President, Lord Gill, delivered the opening speech on the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession. Picture: TSPL
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ALISTAIR Morris hails success of Commonwealth conference

There were so many highlights from the Commonwealth Law Conference 2015 that it’s impossible to capture them all. However, standout moments included the opening ceremony when more than 700 lawyers from across the globe were treated to the spectacle of bagpipers accompanied by Scottish Highland Dancers at the SECC. It was an energetic start to a truly energising, inspiring week of seminars and discussions of some of the most important issues we face, not just as lawyers but as citizens of our individual nations.

With four streams running simultaneously each day, there was a huge amount of work behind the scenes to deliver a four-day, world-class programme with 120 speakers at 52 sessions covering corporate and commercial law; constitutionalism, human rights and the rule of law; the legal and judicial professions; and other contemporary legal topics.

Scotland’s Lord President, Lord Gill, delivered the opening speech on the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession and stressed the importance of every citizen to be able to access “the services of lawyers who have no ties to any organisation and whose duties lie only to the court, to the client and to their own professional body and its exacting standards”.

On day two, Hina Jilani from Pakistan described her work as founder of the first women’s law firm in Pakistan and its first legal aid centre. She has stood up for the rights of women and disadvantaged groups and highlighted the work of dedicated lawyers against harsh regimes, insisting the rule of law must be used to underpin unjust situations.

“Adapt or die – the future of the legal profession” was covered on day two, an issue close to my heart as the society works to support members during ongoing rapid change in the sector. It was interesting to learn about the experiences of lawyers in other countries and views on alternative routes to the profession and new types of legal jobs. Questions raised included reasons for legal firms moving away from offering a range of legal services to focus on particular areas of law and if the traditional structure of law firms encouraged a short-term view on profit taking.

Dame Silvia Cartwright, New Zealand’s first female High Court judge, opened the third day with an excellent talk delivered with elegance and precision. Currently an expert adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights investigating abuses of human rights in Sri Lanka, she also served for eight years as a judge of the international court trying human rights abuse charges against the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the subject of her talk.

Interest was generated by the late addition of Julian Assange to the panel session on international intelligence gathering and privacy. Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who chaired the session, and panellist Adriana Edmeades, from Privacy International, were joined by the WikiLeaks founder via videolink to discuss the need for robust regulation to protect legal privilege and what lawyers should do to ensure that their communications with clients were properly protected.

I was delighted to chair a panel discussion later that day on “Protecting the protectors: the role and responsibility of the profession in supporting the rule of law” with Vimbai Nyemba, Andrew Caplan and John Suzi-Banda, presidents of the law societies of Zimbabwe, England & Wales and Malawi. We have formed strong bonds with Malawi’s Law Society, which has just 500 lawyers as members serving a population of over six million people – a vast contrast to our own 11,000 membership.

Andrew Caplan faces very different issues to lawyers in Malawi and Zimbabwe, but gave an impassioned speech attacking UK government policies on restricting access to justice – an important reminder that not all difficulties facing lawyers today are far from home.

The Lord President delivered a very humorous and relevant vote of thanks at Lexis Nexis dinner, at which the brave leadership of Upul Jayasuriya from Sri Lanka was recognised by the Lexis Nexis Rule of Law Award and provided a reminder of how lucky we are to practise law in Scotland where we have freedom of speech and association.

It was a terrific honour to host the conference and both inspiring and humbling to see the shared sense of justice and fairness which connects lawyers from across the Commonwealth.

• Alistair Morris is president of the Law Society of Scotland