Stephen Thompson QC

On the second day of the remote Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference this year, the focus was on matters international.  If ever there has been a year to remind us that we are not just an island, it was 2020 – the year our exit from the EU and tireless work on international trade deals overshadowed only by a global pandemic.

The Chair of the International Committee of the Bar Council, Steven Thompson QC, chaired a panel discussion entitled “Leading the Charge”, featuring speakers with huge experience in crime, commercial, chancery and family in the international sphere who set out their visions for the future.  First up was Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Chancellor of the High Court who was chair of the Bar in 2007 at the height of his extraordinary career at the chancery bar and who is poised to take over at the helm of the civil justice judiciary as Master of the Rolls at the start of next term. 

Sir Geoffrey has long been known for taking a long-term and upbeat view of the future of justice in England and Wales, just as long as the legal professional and the judiciary keep up their efforts in reforming the system to take advantage of technological advances.  The invention of the internet and the now almost ubiquitous use of broadband technology, coupled with the astonishing growth in computer processing power allows, indeed requires, us to embrace the opportunities offered by artificial intelligence, blockchain, smart contracts to make sense of the big data age in which we now live.

The Chancellor pointed to the renowned quality of the judiciary, the pragmatism of the lawyers and the efficiency of the London arbitration services as guarantors of the high status of English law in the commercial world, but spoke particularly of the imminent technological reforms of the business justice system.  The last century demonstrated the adaptability of the English law and our courts in the face of change, and the next Master of the Rolls reminded us of the work being done to plan for the future, such as the recent Legal Statement on the status of Cryptoassets and Smart Contracts produced by Lawtech UK – a statement which does not have the force of law which has already been referred to and relied upon in reported cases.

Artificial intelligence is a topic which strikes fear into the heart of many lawyers, a handful of whom might have seen it in action in large disclosure exercises but many of whom will be in the dark about what it is, let alone what challenges and changes it is likely to present to the justice system.  Sir Geoffrey brushed aside the suggestion that we might soon have a set of “Vos reforms” of the scale introduced by Lord Woolf two decades ago, but he did make clear that he will apply his endless energy to “take an holistic look at civil justice across the piece” with ADR baked into the process, and face-to-face hearings “reserved for situations in which the time they take and the costs of them are justified”.

Sir Geoffrey’s speech can be read in full here:

Faced with a hard act to follow, Mehvish Chaudhry stepped up to the challenge.  Mehvish is a family law barrister at Harcourt Chambers specialising in international children’s cases. The majority of her cases involve cross border issues.  She represents the Family Law Bar Association on the International Committee of the Bar Council.  As well as setting out how Brexit might affect a family barrister’s work, Mehvish told the audience how to develop and grow an international practice and even offered to give out personal advice to those needing help.

The final presentation was from Rachel Barnes,  a dual qualified English barrister and New York attorney with huge experience including time working at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  A senior junior with a PhD in public international law at Cambridge, Rachel has an international crime and fraud practice, and spends her time advising and representing parties in extradition, mutual legal assistance and asset recovery in not just criminal but also civil and public law cases.  Rachel considered the future of cross-border criminal justice and, like Mehvish, had some invaluable tips on how practitioners might develop an international criminal practice.

The short talks were rounded off with a lively debate inspired by questions from the audience. 

The session underlined the readiness of the profession to engage with the challenges thrown our way by Brexit and Covid-19, and indeed anything else we might encounter next year.  The enthusiasm and optimism of our next Master of the Rolls, Mehvish and Rachel shone through the hour, and left the audience in no doubt that the Bar of England and Wales will indeed be leading the charge internationally, just as it always has.