How Chris Grayling became a Keyser Söze figure to the legal profession

At the start of the week I asked: will the Global Law Summit (GLS) be worth it in the end? Having spent three days at the GLS, it is only fair I try to answer my own question.

The Lord Chancellor’s opening address on Monday was as combative as you might expect under the circumstances. Even if Chris Grayling – as many suspect – has little love for the legal profession, it would hardly be the British way to criticise your fellow countrymen in a room full of foreign dignitaries. Still, he did reiterate his belief that the legal system needed to change.

Afterwards, the 2,295 delegates from 110 countries were treated to three days of high-profile speakers and experts discuss privacy, human rights, diversity, innovation, and everything else in between.

More than once the principle of access to justice was mentioned – admittedly not by the justice secretary who was conspicuous in his absence for much of the summit. Rumour has it Grayling did reappear when his Conservative colleague – and potential future boss – Boris Johnson arrived for his keynote speech on Wednesday.

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor was too busy discussing future business with Karim Massimov, the prime minister of Kazakhstan, who seemed full of enthusiasm for the rule of law during his address to the summit, despite his country’s recent poor record on human rights.

A key theme throughout the GLS was the importance of exporting Magna Carta to the rest of the world. If the summit was able to bring some of the founding principles of our legal system to other nations, like Kazakhstan, then the three day event may have all been worth it – even if access to justice in the country that created the historic charter has never been more under threat.

To this legal hack, the summit did indeed resemble a jamboree for international business interests, albeit one that provided first-class CPD for the multitude of lawyers who attended.

In the interest of fairness, SJ chose to cover both the GLS and its reactionary event. It is therefore only fair of me to ask whether the efforts of the Not the Global Law Summit (NTGLS) and its supporters amounted to anything in the end.

Even a casual observer could not fail to be impressed by the passion and commitment displayed by the protesters. Trekking 42 miles from Runnymede to London dressed as minstrels; preparing banners and placards; building a quite brilliant effigy of Grayling, resplendent in King John’s vestments; and standing before the Palace of Westminster to speak with eloquence about the importance of legal aid and access to justice.

Yet I do find myself worrying that if – come 7 May we still have the current justice secretary in power at 102 Petty France – all of the Justice Alliance’s hard work will have come to naught.

My fears increased when, on the final day of the GLS, delegates were treated to a lunchtime spectacle as more than 2,000 firefighters attended a rally directly outside to protest against changes to their pension schemes. As international lawyers and businessmen dined on a quintessentially English feast of fish and chips, they were serenaded by the dulcet tones of a lone piper from beneath their third-storey viewpoint overlooking Westminster.

Gazing out at the assembled mass of firefighters who were standing up to a minister they believe recently mislead parliament (sound familiar), I overheard one North American delegate say to another: “No idea what that protest was on [Monday] but it was definitely an attack on this conference.” I asked other delegates what they knew about the protest. Many of those from out of town just gave me a quizzical look.

The firefighters’ protest – and the publicity it received from the press – was in stark contrast to what was given to those campaigning for access to justice and legal aid.

Outside of the legal press, there was very little reporting. The Independent did highlight the Relay for Rights march prior to the summit’s launch. There was also a somewhat linked comment piece from Andrew Langdon QC to coincide with the final day of the conference. To its credit, the Guardian ran a lengthy piece on Monday. The Times, however, decided that a small mention at the end of its GLS round-up was all that was required.

On one hand, the mainstream media are to blame for the lack of coverage. With some obvious exceptions, Fleet Street does not find the principle of access to justice to be sexy enough to devote column inches to. Unless they are being prosecuted for phone-hacking, of course. But the legal profession must shoulder a large portion of the blame.

Firefighters have the luxury of being represented by a single representative body, the Fire Brigades Union. The legal profession, arguably, has far too many bodies with competing interests and voices. There is no clear and authoritative figure that all, be they solicitor or barrister, private or public law practitioner, can rally behind.

While some of the biggest names in the profession decided to rail against Grayling from outside, others chose to enter the lion’s den and shout, politely, to anyone who would listen. Yet these two competing groups weren’t just content with taking on the Lord Chancellor. They also seemed to have plenty of time to snipe at each from the sidelines and debate which strategy is best for the cause.

‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’, is maybe the most famous line from The Usual Suspects. Perhaps the greatest trick Grayling has ever pulled has been keeping lawyers divided over his Magna Carta jamboree.

We may never know what impact the NTGLS may have had if it had managed the same scale of protest as that of the firefighters union.

This blog post was first published on Solicitors Journal on 27 Feburary 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission