Ministry of Truth

By | 5th November 2009

When I used to travel on business particularly in the countries of Latin America I used to enjoy the very real differences in the way lawyers worked and the institutions in which they operated.

There are, of course, obvious differences between the way of life I was used to in the UK and in Continental Europe and what lies below the Panama Canal. In particular I remember the disparity between what you leave behind at Miami airport and the reality of life in the outskirts of Caracas as you drive up the canyon from the airport to the city centre.

However, this is not meant to be a social commentary, you will be relieved to know. No, my point is a simple one. My purpose is to highlight certain developments during my practicing life which I strongly suspect have not been for the best.

I was always struck by the court buildings in places like Lima or Buenos Aires and the grandiose lettering above the doors often quoting some worthy sentiment or saying about the law below the hotel like name  “Palacio de la Justicia.”

There are and were countries in South America (as in other places around the world) where the mere mention of justice was sufficient to cause a smug lawyer from Western Europe to break into a wry smile while walking past or driving by with the taxi driver pointing out the sights.

I was certain in my own mind that if we ever had anything so vulgar as a Palace of Justice or even a Minister of Justice in the UK, I would not want to continue with the law. Far too Orwellian for me! What is wrong with “The Law Courts”?

Well, I am pleased to say I made it! I stopped active practice before the present Lord Chancellor became our Minister of Justice. Even he and his predecessor, Tony’s Crony, Lord Falconer of the Dome, balked at the idea of calling the building in Parliament Square which houses the Supreme Court, the Palace of Justice!! Having said that, I note that there are quotations from the likes of Cicero, Aristotle and Plato carved into the ceiling and benches!

This mania for changing the name of something is in tune with the current time. After all, the well understood concept of discovery in litigation has become the less well known and more difficult concept of disclosure. I am not sure it is an improvement.

And while on the subject of improvement (sic), another statistic caught my eye recently. I had always heard that when Britain had an empire which covered the best part of a quarter of the globe, there were just a few hundred staff in Whitehall responsible for administering this huge area. Now I learn from the musings of Sir Thomas Legg QC (he of the MPs’ expenses fame) that when he joined the Lord Chancellor’s Department in 1962, there were just 12 lawyers employed. When he retired in 1998, the department had 20,000 staff and a budget of £2 billion!

I know litigation is expensive but this is crazy. Does anyone believe that either the number of staff or the budget have declined in the last 11 years? Is this an improvement? I am sure someone will argue that it is — ?