Power to the people's profession

That well-known journalist Chapman Pincher, in a letter to The Sunday Times, recently said that going to law in the UK is "like going to war, the only certainty being the cost".

He continued: "The adversarial British High Courts are not based on the principle of justice but are a fancy dress charade in which two opposing teams of lawyers use words to convince a jury and judge, all of whom, being human, are fallible, of the merit of their respective stories one of which must be disbelieved."

Not an attractive reference. And yet I wager that that is the opinion, not only of most journalists, but of most litigants.

What in 1996 is in the pipeline to improve this position? The answer is, very little, apart from Lord Woolf's deliberations which, so far, seem unproductive in terms of change. And, whatever the results, one can be certain they will be watered down by the combined efforts of the profession.

And what changes will come out of the forthcoming general election? Again, not a lot, is the answer. We will soldier on using a system that most accept is far too expensive for the average litigant, that the Government, via the Legal Aid Board, can no longer afford, and one that, apart from large corporations, few actually use.

This is a dreadful indictment of the legal profession. To take part in a charade, as it is so graphically described, is bad enough, but to take part in a charade that none of our fellow citizens can afford is even worse. It is easy to pass the buck. The Government is an obvious target. The legal establishment is another. But the real initiative for change should come from the profession itself.

We wonder why our image is so poor with the public. Perhaps it is because they do not perceive us as being interested enough to change a system which the public feels it can no longer afford to use.

If we really want a better public image and really want to see public support for our efforts to get more money into legal aid, we have to be shown to be more open to change.

That we seem so wedded to out-of-date systems, out-of-date dress, and out-of-date attitudes makes our image so poor. That is emphasised by some of the peccadillos of the legal profession that we see played out on television. None show us as forward thinking or concerned with the public interest. Most show us concerned with our own well-being – unfair, perhaps, but it is reality.

And that is what is so depressing about what is happening in Chancery Lane. But the only cry that we hear from there, understandable in some ways, is "More money for the profession." That is not what the public wants.

We have to convince the public we want to change things, that we want quality services and that we accept sacrifices have to be made. And part of that sacrifice is to give a better service at a price the public can afford and, moreover, in a way that the public can use.

Until we can come to terms with this I see little prospect of a great deal of sympathy from anyone, be they client, respected journalist, or politician.