Legal Services Board, Inns of Court and justice reform

As our esteemed editor at large, Kevin Poulter, recently highlighted, the summer party season is upon us. This week alone, the SJ team has attended several ritzy gatherings: from the Legal Services Board’s headquarters to various chambers in both Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inns. SJ has been cutting a swath through this season’s social calendar, but don’t think that we haven’t at least kept one ear, and one eye, open for the stories that matter to our loyal readership.

On Tuesday, I was invited to the Legal Services Board to meet the regulator’s new chairman, Sir Michael Pitt, for an informal roundtable. I asked Sir Michael whether the 70 days he was expected to work per year of his three-year tenure, and of which he is paid £63,000 per annum, was enough time for him to get the job done and finally implement the organisation’s blueprint.

“I think we are going to have to wait and see,” he responded. “This is now my principal job and it will take up the greatest amount of my working time. I will give the job the time that it requires. Seventy days is feeling quite pressured at the moment.

“As I get to know the sector, and the individuals in the sector better, I think the job becomes easier. It is a steep learning curve and I have a lot still to learn, but building up new relationships with people in different parts of the legal sector will hopefully pay off in due course.”

I was impressed by how much information he has already managed to sift through and retain in such a short period and that, despite a grilling, he nonetheless stood up reasonably well to questioning. SJ will speak to Sir Michael again soon. What would you ask him?

Leaving the LSB, I then made the short trek to Lincoln’s Inn, specifically Serle Court, for the chairman of the Bar Council’s media reception. Amid the usual floating trays of wine and finger food, I was surprised to notice that, even in a room filled with white, middle-age barristers, the issue of diversity was high on the agenda.

Vice-chairman of the Bar Council, Alistair MacDonald QC, told me that diversity within the independent Bar was “key” for its continued existence. Though he was reluctant to go as far as Lady Hale, who recently suggested that affirmative action should be considered to enable more women to move into judicial positions.

Playing devil’s advocate, I asked MacDonald which he would prefer (or rather which he could live with more easily): a regulator, such as the LSB, that is headed by a lay person, or a lord chancellor short of formal legal training? Judging by his response, the LSB’s future is secure for the time being.

On the subject of our beloved lord chancellor, I attended Reform’s conference on crime, justice and safer communities yesterday during which Chris Grayling and his opposition counterpart, Sadiq Khan, both gave keynote addresses.

Beginning his speech, Grayling said: “They used to say ‘Theresa May locks them up, Ken Clarke lets them out and now I throw away the key’.” Apparently he was joking.

As one has come to expect from Grayling, there was some strong rhetoric. He spoke of keeping a “much closer eye on crooks in the community”. Perhaps someone at the MoJ should teach him the principle that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. He also went on to challenge the opposition to come up with credible plans for justice reform.

In response, Khan’s keynote began: “[These events] are an opportunity to discuss, debate and scrutinise ideas about how we might reform the criminal justice system. You’ve had experts speaking all morning, practitioners – people who know what they are talking about – and you’ve also had Chris Grayling as well.” That certainly drew a few laughs from the assembled crowd.

Khan continued by saying “the justice secretary champions the fact that he trusts his instinct ahead of evidence” and that “he’s too casual about the risks to public safety from imposing a half-baked and untested new model on the supervision of dangerous and violent offenders”. With less than a year to go until the general election, we can be sure that the issue of crime and justice will be high on the political agenda.

After this, I made my way back to Lincoln’s Inn for a rooftop terrace reception at Radcliffe Chambers. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that even barristers are keen on the current craze of Panini sticker swapsies for the World Cup.

I would like to thank Radcliffe Chambers, the LSB, the Bar Council and Serle Court for their hospitality this week. Tonight the SJ team is off to Matrix Chambers for its summer party and the launch of its sister brand, Matrix International. Let’s see what the chambers that gave us Cherie Booth QC has to offer…

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 3 July 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.