Last week marked the 807th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Seven years ago, on the occasion of its 800th milestone, I wrote an article humbly recommending that the late Lord Bingham of Cornhill’s seminal work on the rule of law be made compulsory reading for everyone hoping to one day stand for, and more importantly, already elected to, Parliament. At the time, it was a suggestion made slightly tongue-in-check, but if the events of the intervening years are anything to go by, it’s one that should perhaps be taken a little more seriously.
Lord Bingham was right to start his book explaining the significance of Magna Carta and what this great charter has come to represent: the notion of the rule of law, the applicability of trial by jury, and the limitation of regal authority. Taken with habeas corpus, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and the system of common law, the UK has a uniquely eminent role over hundreds of years in furthering the cause of the law, an inheritance we should be both immensely grateful for, and proud of. Indeed, the integral checks and balances they provide, developed and pioneered in the UK, remain a litmus test of good governance around the world.
To this day, these enduring beacons of our past help shape our image in the present, boosting our standing on the international stage and giving us a moral authority to speak out when others do wrong. Ultimately, our adherence to the law, and respect for it, is what sets us apart from the countries of this world who brazenly snub the post-World War II settlement of a rules-based order.
From a purely financial point of view, the law is also, of course, one of our great exports, making Britain both a reliable and respected trading partner and a safe, fair, and attractive place to do business. Our legal services sector alone is worth £60 billion to the economy, employing 552,000 people (equivalent to 1.1 per cent of the UK labour force).
Just as important is the role it plays in underwriting other key markets, not least the financial services sector. In 2019, English law governed around £250 billion of global mergers and acquisitions and 40% of global corporate arbitrations. Our pre-eminence in this field cannot be understated.
Because of all of this, it’s very easy to fall into the trap – and I would suggest, as a nation, we sometimes have one foot already lurking worryingly close to its jaws – of thinking in broad, grandiose terms that the sole threats to the rule of law are the old evils of authoritarianism, aggressive populism and corruption, and various poisonous offshoots in between. While these should never be discounted as a risk (I still believe, a remote one in the UK), our illustrious hinterland in forging the rule of law has led to a creeping complacency which should be of equal concern. In short, we are too often guilty of taking the rule of law for granted.
Our creaking courts system and its underpaid and overworked staff, and the consequent backlog this has created, hinders access to justice, while ad-hominem attacks on members of the profession and the judiciary weaken its legitimacy, breeding distrust and hostility and bringing into question the motives of what is, for many of us, a worthy and valuable calling. It’s a shame that needs to be said and there are many in power who should know better. Where there are faults in the system that are abused, it is for parliamentarians to put them right.
Writing as a lawyer first, and a politician second, the emerging tendency to view rules and international obligations as almost discretionary, especially when they’re not politically expedient, should be firmly pushed back on. Those who truly believe in the rule of law know that it applies consistently and cannot be approached as if perusing some sort of legal pick’n’mix.
The rule of law isn’t an abstract philosophical idea, nor is it purely transactional in the sense of putting criminals behind bars or enforcing a civil debt. It’s a social good that every day, whoever you are, underpins and enforces your rights.
Moreover, in Justice Week, it’s important to remember that the rule of law isn’t static either. We have a responsibility, like those before us, to promote and actively further it. Lip service alone is insufficient. Continuous investment and constant nurturing are required.
Recent years have exposed a worrying vacuum in public understanding of both our legal processes and constitutional politics. The result is a widespread failure to critically pick apart false claims, baseless slurs and deliberate obfuscation on issues and decisions that impact every facet of our lives.
That is why – not between ourselves in esoteric terms, but openly as a society - we need a frank, evidence-based discussion about the rule of law, its value, what it means, and how we apply it on a day-to-day basis. Justice Week provides the perfect opportunity to start that process.
Sir Robert Neill is the Chair of the Parliamentary Justice Committee and Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst.