Gordon Jackson: All lawyers need to stress the law’s importance in any free society

We have just welcomed the latest batch of new members to the Faculty at our annual admissions ceremony. For me, it brought back special memories because it is now exactly 40 years since I “passed Advocate”.
Gordon Jackson is Dean of the Faculty of AdvocatesGordon Jackson is Dean of the Faculty of Advocates
Gordon Jackson is Dean of the Faculty of Advocates

The hair is not so dark, and the waistline has flourished, but much else has changed since then. The Faculty was very much a boys’ club with only four lady members. Ideas like an equality and diversity policy simply did not exist. Zero tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment hadn’t been thought of. Perhaps such things didn’t happen, but I suspect they did and were largely ignored. Any such problems that did arise could usually be dealt with by the then Dean having a word in the appropriate ear.

There was little interaction with broader civil society. No need, really. We had exclusive rights of audience in the higher courts. Judges and sheriffs invariably came from the Bar and the idea of a Queen’s Counsel not being a member of Faculty was laughable. We were a protected, self-regulating body, happy to be left alone.

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Not so now. We have a Scottish Government which asks for, and I believe values, our views on all kinds of issues. Members of Faculty give a great deal of time and effort to prepare detailed responses to consultations and appearing before parliamentary committees. Our monopoly in the higher courts has gone. No longer a protected species, we survive and flourish only on merit and excellence. The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is there to see that our regulatory systems are fit for purpose in a modern world.

We reach out to schools and universities to explain what an Advocate actually does. Our increased scholarship scheme is helping to attract bright, young people who might have thought being at the Bar was somehow not for them. We are no longer to be perceived as a kind of exclusive club although, from my own experience, I don’t actually think we ever really were. We very much want to attract young lawyers with the necessary ability and commitment from all backgrounds. And then we give them an excellent training scheme which I believe can compare favourably with anything similar elsewhere in the UK and beyond.

So why do all this? Not just for survival or personal gain or to boast of our excellence, although it would be naive to deny that all these things are in there. But much more important is our deep-seated belief that some things do matter. In particular, we value hugely that we live in a society where the rule of law is upheld because that is at the very core of any free and democratic society. That simply means no-one is above the law and all must answer to it no matter how rich or powerful. It also means no-one, no matter how poor or disadvantaged, is beneath the law or ineligible for its protection. Quite simply, the rule of law means, and must always mean, justice for all.

That is why access to justice is very important, not just a slogan or cliché for lawyers to trumpet. Without it, the rule of law is but an empty shell. Without proper access to justice, the rule of law’s protection only works for the few. From criminal law to family law to employment law to housing and consumer issues and much more. Wherever there are legal problems to be solved, rights protected or disputes settled, it is vital that the whole justice system is available to all who need it.

And that means lawyers. Shakespeare penned the words, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, and others might think that not such a bad idea. The truth, however, is that without lawyers, there can be no justice system, no access to justice and no meaningful rule of law.

In that context, I firmly believe in the value of an independent referral bar, and that nothing should be done to undermine that. A group of individual lawyers with the highest standards, both ethically and in legal practice, with duty to both client and court. Willing to act for anyone, no matter how unpopular, and to do that without fear or favour. Forty years after joining the Faculty, I am glad I did, but there is no resting on laurels. All lawyers need to get out there and increase public knowledge and understanding of the law and, above all, its importance in any free society.

Gordon Jackson is Dean of the Faculty of Advocates