This was the day when I really got the flavour of what the Commonwealth Law Conference is all about.
My appetite was whetted at the breakfast reception hosted by our SYLA (not that many young lawyers in evidence, but an agreeable way to start the day) – I found myself sitting next to Greg Ross from Sydney, who said he had only missed one of these conferences since 1996, and they were “the best law conferences with the best topics on the planet”.
The informal tone of the event was underlined when the President of the Law Society of England & Wales came to join us at table and introduced himself simply as “Andrew”. People have been doing that sort of thing.
And so to the business. Well, almost. Despite it being 9am on Monday, a pipe band and Highland dancers ambushed us from the wings as we waited for proceedings to start. “I guess we can expect quite a lot of that sort of thing here”, a delegate near me observed. Suitably jolted to full wakefulness, we listened to Alistair Morris introduce Lord Gill as the first keynote speaker – appropriate, said Morris, as the profession is challenged by much change and reform and Gill has been in the vanguard of some of the reforms.
To begin with, the Lord President (as other speakers after him were to) boasted his Glasgow credentials, having been born “less than two miles” from the arena. “It's the friendliest city in the world, even when playing the bagpipes”, he assured us, before homing in on his twin themes: the independence of the judiciary, and of the profession.
The two are connected, he argued: we need the best in the profession to become judges, and these must be “pleaders who are courageous and beholden to no one”, individuals who have “no obligations to anyone other than their own professional body and the courts” – a hint perhaps of his views on solicitor advocates and the rules that govern them.
What kind of judges do we wish to have? It's a simple question until you try and answer it, he commented, proceeding to discuss appointment processes, the proper criteria for appointment (of which academic quality in the law must be one), and his regret that leading lawyers often do not wish to be come judges, he believes partly because of the lack of appreciation of their work and indeed the downright hostility experienced from some critics.
And he reckons there is a place for the sometimes quirky candidate, ahead of the “bland individuals who don't put a foot wrong at interview”. “No one comes to the bench fully formed”, he added, touching on judicial education, discipline and complaints and the salient features of each.
On the criticism theme, however, he recalled seeing a banner in Parliament Square reading “Lord Gill – resign”, and reflecting that it was “a privilege to be a judge in a society where the public could make a criticism like that without being taken away by the police”!
If his speech is not already on the Judiciary Scotland website, it will be soon.
The rest of the day was devoted to streamed sessions – four running at once, on the respective themes of corporate and commercial; constitutionalism, human rights and the rule of law; legal and judicial profession; and contemporary legal topics. I took in two of the first set, on whether to allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms, and modernisation of corporate governance. The latter would, I think, have been of interest to most corporate lawyers; the former saw Scotland's Stephen Gold and Slater & Gordon's Andrew Grech rebut the criticisms of external ownership, while chairman Malcolm Mercer from Ontario reflected on the arguments currently raging in his own jurisdiction.
But for me the highlight of the day came in the final session, when I selected “Freedom of expression, freedom of religion” from the second stream. Northern Ireland's Alan Hunter set out the conflicting rights at issue in the case of the bakery company who cancelled an order for a cake promoting same sex marriage because the owners opposed it. India's Madhavi Divan described an early (pre-independence) forerunner to the Charlie Hebdo outrage, suggesting that the law (in Pakistan if not in India) had taken a backward step since then.
Outdoing them both for matters of legal concern, however, Steven Thiru from Malaysia set out the stark risks to basic freedoms posed by the colonial Sedition Act and its use as a repressive tool by the present government, which is even in the process of amending it to make it more draconian, and a threat to lawyers as much as to anyone (a constitutional challenge may be the only hope). His powerful presentation (possibly at some personal risk) won him the instant admiration of his audience, all of which perhaps embodied all by itself the bond that exists between us as professionals from whatever jurisdiction, and the value of a gathering such as this conference. I look forward to more sessions like it.