A week of debate, speeches, networking, rallies, protests and laughs beckon for the legal profession

Today is the day we have all been waiting for as the Global Law Summit (GLS) kicks off this morning at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, closely nestled beside the Supreme Court and with the Palace of Westminster just visible to the south.

As I write this, perched like a pigeon in Parliament Square, I can see the various delegates arriving for what they hope will be three days of speeches, business and networking opportunities. Yet they are not the only ones flocking to Westminster’s premier conference venue today.

Later, protestors will be arriving in their droves. Whether, like in 2013, they will be dressed in their barrister robes and horse hair wigs, remains to be seen, what is certain is that they will be ready to bang their drums and chant all day to stop the cuts to legal aid and increase access to justice. Even the now famous giant Chris Grayling piñata is set to make an appearance following his return at the Relay for Rights march in Runnymede over the weekend.

While the protestors’ trek from Runnymede to Westminster has no doubt been long, the government’s journey to the launch of this event has, possibly, been an even longer and arduous trip.

The summit has been beset by controversy since its inception. Most recently, Stephen Green, the former chairman of HSBC, has withdrawn from giving one of the event’s opening speeches. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who had been due to speak at the summit on privacy issues, has also pulled out, albeit for different reasons.

“This event has been promoted by a government which has decimated access to justice. As a human rights campaigner, my place is with the protesters,” she said.

Bad press has dogged the government’s flagship legal event, even from The Telegraph of all places. An article by the now former chief political commentator Peter Oborne described the upcoming conference as the “rank stench of moral hypocrisy.”.

The GLS has been called nothing more than a “spurious attempt” to ride on the coat tails of the 800thanniversary of Magna Carta. While the signing of the charter took place on 19 June 1215, the government’s decision to hold the event prior to the general election in May has led others to call it a “back slapping corporate jamboree”.

The historic document famously enshrines for all the right to justice and a fair trial. But while access to justice has perhaps never been more under threat in this country, the Lord Chancellor’s summit has quite unabashedly chosen to focus, not on the rule of law, but on what some would view as the corporate and legal elite. With tickets on sale at up to £1750, it is hardly any wonder the above accusations have been levelled at it.

This also might account for why, despite months of advertising, the GLS is still not sold out. There even seems to have been a change in tactics from the event’s organisers. At one stage not a single member of the shadow justice team had been invited to speak or even attend the event.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan only received an invitation at the end of January. Khan declined the invitation, as has the shadow solicitor general, Karl Turner MP, who declared the event to be a “sham“.

But scorn from certain quarters of the profession has not just been levelled at the Lord Chancellor. More than one high profile silk has let rip at the Criminal Bar Association’s confusing U-turn that went from denouncing the event as ‘Putin-esque‘ to suddenly sending its new chair to speak on a rule of law panel discussion. John Cooper QC has said that the CBA is “pandering” to the Lord Chancellor’s “political opportunism“.

Even the respected representative bodies of both the solicitor and barrister professions have been attacked over their “founding partnership” of the event. Just last week, the chairman of the Bar Alistair MacDonald QC said the summit’s programme was “rich in content” despite its “commercial context” and that tough issues such judicial review would make it “relevant for all”. There is no denying this. After all, the Lord Chancellor has done his utmost to ensure judicial review is limited, with the passing of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act.

The Law Society, another partner, has also found itself in the firing line. Most recently, questions have been raised as to whether or not its chief executive, Catherine Dixon, used her influence to stop the independent Law Gazette from publishing any news of the various GLS protest events.

SJ was one of the first legal publications to report on ‘Not the Global Law Summit’ (NTGLS) when it was announced in January. However, avid readers of the Gazette might not know of its existence. One lawyer – who wishes to remain anonymous – spotted this lack of coverage and emailed the Gazette to ask why it had not written about the NTGLS. They received no response.

The Gazette’s editorial guidelines state: ‘From time to time the Law Society CEO may exercise the right to prevent the publication of copy where it is considered to prejudice what is deemed to be in the best interests of the representative Law Society.’

Noting this, we contacted the Law Society to ask if it had exercised any influence over the Gazette’s reporting of the NTGLS. A spokesperson for the society told us: “The Gazette commonly writes about events such as the Global Law Summit with which the society is involved or associated. Law Society staff, including the chief executive, did not intervene in coverage of ‘Not the Global Law Summit’.

“The chief executive welcomes a healthy debate on all issues affecting the legal profession. We understand that the Gazette intends to run reports on the Global Law Summit and ‘Not the Global Law Summit’in the next available issue after both events –March 2nd.”

For our part, SJ will be reporting throughout the week on both summits. Make sure you follow SJ on Twitter so you can see what the best and worst of each event has to offer.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 23 February 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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