Lord Neuberger, third from left, with members of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association committee

Lord Neuberger, third from left, with members of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association committee

The title of Lord Neuberger’s speech at the 80 Club Lecture for the Association of Liberal Democrat Lawyers – Tomorrow’s Lawyers Today; Today’s Lawyers Tomorrow – makes a great tongue-twister. As one of ‘tomorrow’s lawyers’ I was glad to find the speech itself was a thorough and careful discussion covering the possibilities and pitfalls of recent reforms, the impact of the Internet and the effects of the recession and constrained government spending on the legal profession.

Lord Neuberger began by setting his discussion in historical context, by looking at the last great period of reform in the 1870s, which both completely altered the face of the British judicial system and ensured it cold continue to operate effectively. The latest reforms, then, were seen in the light of a long history of evolution rather than revolution. Nevertheless, Lord Neuberger accepted that the pace of change over the last two decades – particularly in technology – meant that the legal profession is changing at a much faster pace than it has in the past, in a way that he described as a true paradigm shift.

Lord Neuberger argued that the reforms introduced in 2005 to 2007, including ABSs and the separation of powers, have created uncertainty never before experienced by the English legal profession. The opportunities this creates are the possibility of a ‘less-structured, less-restricted, Internet-inspired development’ but it also means that it is impossible to predict the form that the legal profession might take in the future.

One positive direction he saw is a growth in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) practice, which would combine the possibilities offered by technology and ABSs with the necessity of reducing costs. He also proposed a growth in ‘knowledge engineers’ or digital professional support lawyers working within firms, and outsourcing to specialists in the UK and abroad. Finally, he supported a purely electronic system for bundles, a home-grown version of PACER, the use of Skype and internet correspondence by the CAB to distribute resources, all of which would help to keep costs down and increase the efficiency of litigation.

While market liberalisation and legal reforms such as ABSs offer possibilities, he also argued against a legal profession that might increasingly reflect the ‘system of unreflective consumer fundamentalism’, which would not be able to perform the fundamental requirement of ensuring rule of law in an increasingly unequal society. If justice is only available to the 5% who can pay for it, he argued, that is no justice at all. That is particularly true in the criminal justice system, where the provision of properly qualified advocates is threatened by swingeing cuts in government support for legal aid and by the possibility of ABSs choosing to prioritise more remunerative civil cases over criminal defence.