Law Reform Proposals
In 1986 Lord Gifford QC published proposals for the reform of the justice system, described as a realisable manifesto for a complete overhaul of the legal system. This included the following:
The position of Queen’s Counsel to be abolished. It is better, in Gifford’s opinion, for lawyers to be assessed by their talents and reputation rather than by the secret bestowal of honours by the state.
Wigs and gowns no longer to be worn. The wig and gown are intended to convey a message: that we, judges and barristers, are different and superior; that we have more in common with each other than with you, the litigants; that we practice a craft which you can never understand.
Judges to be appointed from a wide range of people, including younger people, solicitors and academics.
Magistrates to be selected from across the whole community.
Extension of the right to trial by jury.
Court procedures to be reformed to meet the needs of the public.
Extension of the legal aid scheme.
The creation and proper funding of a network of community law centres across the country. The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was based on the principle that no-one should be prevented from obtaining the services of a lawyer through lack of means. State funds were made available through a means test. In 1950 an estimated 80 per cent of the population was covered by legal aid.
The abolition of the monopoly of advocacy. This was a very interesting proposal. Gifford argued that non-lawyers should have the right to represent people in court and that all qualified lawyers should have rights of audience before all courts. This would move towards the democratisation of the legal system. If implemented, it would strike a serious blow at the power of the legal profession.
Gifford also made the following points:
Comprehensive legal services should be provided in a similar way to health services.
Socially and culturally, the Bar is a privileged profession which is structured to exclude those who do not fit in.
The role of judges should be to uphold the law equally and impartially. But when they have no conception of what it is to be, for example, a worker facing redundancy, they are incapable of discharging that role.
This programme of reforms was adopted as part of the election manifesto of the Labour party and then forgotten.
In reality, we have moved backwards since 1986.
It is significant that Gifford’s proposals are similar, in some respects, to those put forward by the Levellers in the Seventeenth Century.
The Levellers’ proposed reforms included:
Codification and simplification of the law
Decentralisation of the legal system
The abolition of the lawyers’ monopoly on representation and advocacy.