‘Public confidence in justice is shot’: Bar Council chair sets out manifesto for justice

Sam Townend KC bemoans ‘parlous state’ of English and Welsh justice system in keynote address at annual Bar Conference

Every part of the justice system that relies on public funding or government support “is in a parlous state”, the leader of the Bar said at the profession’s annual conference last weekend. 

Declaring public confidence in the justice system “is shot”, Sam Townend KC presented the Bar Council’s eight-point ‘manifesto for justice’ as a solution.   

Townend insisted on the necessity of “investment in all parts of the justice system sufficient to secure a sustainable and resilient system, to restore public trust and confidence in justice”.

He recommended that a proposed Royal Commission “remove the issue from the hurly-burly of daily politics and the reductive effect on policy thinking of the tired repeat accusation and counter-accusation of ‘soft on crime’”. 

Townend made a request “that costs nothing, but is highly significant” in calling for “parliamentarians to uphold the rule of law and to respect the separation of powers in all that they say and the legislation that they bring forwards”, noting recent instances of such respect being under threat. 

“Just this year, we have had legislation that, in one instance, reverses a finding of fact of the Supreme Court, and in another, removes from the Court of Appeal and gives to parliament and a minister the power to determine the safety of criminal convictions. These are truly undesirable precedents,” he said, referring first to the controversial PACCAR judgment and second to the recent Horizon legislation exonerating and compensating former sub-postmasters passed in the parliamentary wash-up.

He also criticised proposals to recruit extensive judicial resources to implement the current government’s proposals for immigration deportations to Rwanda as “treating judges like cattle”, while addressing concerns about civil legal aid and early legal advice, in a speech firmly aimed at domestic legal and political consumption. 

Townend repeated warnings about media attacks on lawyers, which he said “undermine trust and confidence in the justice system at home and abroad. The damage this has on our global reputation, soft power and our ability to influence the world should not be understated”.

Endorsing a recent International Bar Association report that highlighed the socio-economic benefits to countries which uphold the rule of law, Townend noted the contribution of legal services to the UK economy £34bn in 2022, making the UK the second largest legal market in the world. 

The legal sector, he added, contributed net exports of £5.7bn including half a billion pounds by the Bar by itself, with the Bar “punching massively above its numerical weight”.

Were the Bar Council’s proposals to be followed, he said, the justice system would “expand the reach of our legal services abroad, increasing further the value of our exports and the contribution it can make to UK economic growth”, which would make it a justice system “respected and a model for the world” again.

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