Frances Edwards dinner speech
Presidents Dinner Speech 2015
Frances Edwards, CILEx President – 8 June 2015
Lord Dyson, my Lords and Ladies, honoured guests – noswaith dda. To greet you all tonight;
– as CILEx’s 51st President,
– at the dawn of new opportunities and prospects for Chartered Legal Executives,
– in the 800th year of Magna Carta,
– and at this important juncture for our justice system, and our country, is truly an honour.
I want to thank you all for coming tonight, and for the continuing support you show for our institute and our members.
It is our members – our practising and aspiring chartered legal executives across the country – who continue to demonstrate the professionalism and expertise that gives CILEx the confidence to represent them.
This year we have been making the most of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect on Magna Carta and its legacy. Indeed the election of our new Government, which is hard to believe is only one month old, has given us all an opportunity to think a great deal about power.
800 years ago, of course, we had a feudal society, where power was unchecked and the rich and powerful were able to dominate the lives of the weak and poor. It was basically Game of Thrones – King John, the ‘mad King Aerys’ of his day, was made to seal Magna Carta under duress by twenty five rebel barons. Rebels who had captured the city in which we sit now. (I like to think of myself as the Queen Daenarys of the legal sector… with my Welsh dragons.)
But, what is worth remembering is the document that emerged from the power struggles of Medieval Britain began a centuries-long process of establishing the rule of law; where today the tyrants of the real world are limited in their power, and can be held to account.
Holding the powerful to account is an idea we have heard a lot about lately. Laws that do just that have been challenged:
– Laws drafted in the rubble of war,
– Hard fought for laws, that protect the fundamental rights and dignity of us all.
– Laws that say what happens in your country is important, because it sets a standard for my country too.
– Laws, that if enacted in Syria, or Russia, would dramatically alter events.
We undermine these laws at our peril – and whilst we await the full details of the proposed British Bill of Rights make no mistake the principle will be undermined if – as has been suggested – we create a two-tier system of human rights in this country – one set of protections for Northern Ireland and Scotland, and another set for England and Wales.
CILEx will be looking very closely at what the Government proposes, and we will take a great deal of convincing that the proposed changes are reform for the better, and not abrogation for the worse.
The rule of law
Whilst today, power continues to be the reserve of the rich and influential, it is generally held that the law should not be. Everyone is subject to the law – that is the pervading legacy of Magna Carta. However, at the root of many of the problems facing the law today is that lawyers and lawmakers are seen as elite and distant.
The weakening of access to justice, the cuts to legal aid and legal advice charities, the rising court fees, has once again put ‘the lawyer’ out of reach of vast numbers of people, particularly the most vulnerable. As a Family lawyer myself, I have witnessed in horror the explosion in numbers of people going without legal assistance in the family courts, and the aftermath for families whose disputes have not been resolved effectively. Thousands of lawyers working pro bono from one end of the country to the other have been supporting where they can, and I want to pay tribute to them tonight. And I feel it only right that the Ministry of Justice has not earmarked legal aid to be burdened with the latest round of cuts.
I am pleased that CILEx, the Law Society and the Bar Council have been working together to challenge these and other issues. As guardians of Magna Carta’s legacy, we lawyers must prevent the creeping perception that the law is only for an established elite.
Legitimacy of lawyers
As a professional body, we take our duty here very seriously; for just as law should not be the reserve of the rich or elite, nor must the study or practise of law. Lawyers from diverse backgrounds, whether that be social, economic, ethnic, religious, educational, or any other background, have to be present to give our profession legitimacy.
The infrastructure to vocationally train lawyers is critical to achieving this – which is what concerns me so much about the latest round of cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. These cuts will be targeted at the further education field, and risks denying opportunities for people to train, re-skill, or indeed undertake an apprenticeship. (Essential to protection our economic recovery, and furthering our country’s global competiveness.)
CILEx speaks with authority in this area, having spent more than 50 years breaking down barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to practise in law. We have been able to do this because CILEx does not impose artificial barriers to studying.
Regardless of prior qualifications, our students – whether studying for the first time, changing careers, or starting out fresh as a mature student – Only have to prove their knowledge, skills and competence.
– they can study at their own pace,
– they can fit their learning in with other commitments and responsibilities,
– and all at a cost that is a fraction of what it is to become a lawyer through more customary routes.
Our lawyers, Chartered Legal Executives;
– are specialists in their field,
– educated to degree level,
– and considered experts by their colleagues.
– In a world where women are still paid less than men for the same work, our chartered legal executives (three-quarters of whom are women) can earn the same as their fellow lawyers – and, of course, thanks to you Lord Dyson and the Civil Justice Council Costs Committee, can recover costs at Grade A rates for the first time.
Our lawyers, every day, challenge the preconception that to open up the profession of law to everyone must be to lower standards. Anyone still holding that obsolete opinion today is out of step with the real world.
Providing opportunities for lawyers from all backgrounds to practise will help give lawyers legitimacy with the public – and we are committed to the idea that the circumstances of your birth or upbringing do not dictate whether you will be a good lawyer or not.
We are all committed to this – from our Council members, to our new chief executive Mandie Lavin who has passionately made her time at CILEx about collaboration, to our staff team, and of course our twenty thousand members. And it was our dedication to this principle that led to the new practice rights for our members.
These practice rights were only achieved because of the trust the legal community, parliament, and the public, can place in the work of chartered legal executives. But also because when things go wrong, as they can do, our independent regulator can be trusted to act in the best interests of the public. CILEx Regulation are the ones that put in the hard work for our members to compete on an equal footing with other lawyers – and they are now the regulator of choice for new and existing law firms.
This existence of specialist regulation that is fit-for-purpose would not have happened without the commitment of one man, who has not just been leading CILEx Regulation since it was established, but has been maintaining the professional standards of CILEx members since he joined the institute in 1975.
Ian Watson retires as CILEx Regulation’s chief executive later this year. Ian is a true gentleman, and not the sort of person to want the spotlight turned on him – but I’m afraid we could not let your commitment of FORTY years go by without some acknowledgement. Your wisdom, your professionalism, and your humour have endeared you in all our hearts, and thousands upon thousands of CILEx members both in this country and around the world owe you a great deal.
It is my distinct honour to announce that the Council of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives has resolved to award you, Ian Watson, with an Honorary Fellowship of the institute you have done so much for. Ladies and gentleman, Ian Watson.
I’d just like to conclude on the many changes to come;
– As more people take CILEx’s lead in offering apprenticeships into law,
– as the system of qualifications in England and Wales diverges,
– and as devolved powers to cities and regions see local skills agendas take greater prominence.
– As chartered legal executives begin setting up their own law firms,
– as more and more existing law firms turn to CILEx for their regulatory needs
– and as the public, and businesses, adjust to having a greater choice of lawyer.
– As further spending reductions are planned, for our justice and education systems
– and as we seek to make clear that cuts without the reforms to make them workable, will only cost more in the long run.
– And as we debate our place in the world as a champion of human rights.
We at CILEx are eager to work with all of you, whatever side of these debates you fall on. Collaborating together, we can greet the challenges and opportunities these changes present, and together meet the challenges of the future.
Diolch yn fawr – Thank you.