LORD DYSON AND THE MUNKMAN LECTURE 2017: 50 YEARS OF CHANGE: SELECTED EXTRACTS

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John Munkman died 17 years ago.  However his legacy lives on.  Firstly in his books which are still in print and secondly in the annual Munkman lecture organised by Zenith Chambers.  The Munkman name may well help in attracting the calibre of speakers that are willing to brave the wild north, and (possibly wild) northern lawyers.  This year there there was particular excitement. Not only was the speaker extremely eminent he was also a local boy. Lord Dyson, former Justice of the Supreme Court and Master of The Rolls

THE YORKSHIRE LINK

Lord Dyson hails from Leeds and attended Leeds Grammar School.  There was clear evidence of northern canniness from the outset.  “I’m not going to attempt to justify my decision to practice in London and not in Leeds, I can’t possibly win that argument here”. (Well he had that right).

He noted that Leeds had changed a lot since he had left. “I left Leeds a long time ago.  When I left it had an international quality football team” (Which is definitely the thing you can only say if you actually come from Leeds).

THE THEME OF THE TALK

One element of John Munkman’s brilliance was his concision. His ability to cover a wide range of material, reduce it to the essential and still cover every essential point.  This may well have been a skill they taught in the grammar schools of Leeds back in the day.  Lord Dyson’s talk covered virtually every major element of law over the past 50 years, criminal and civil.   From judicial training to legal aid, the role of the Supreme Court to the Lord Chancellor.  In reporting on the talk I have been selective. Choosing those elements that will be of most interest to readers of this blog (or possibly those topics that are of most interest to me).  I stress that I am only covering a very small part of a very wide-ranging talk. The talk dealt with the major changes to family law and the fact that criminal law has become increasingly complex.

THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER

This was not a talk that harked back to the “good old days”.  Lord Dyson felt that,  with a few exceptions, there had been major improvements.  He discussed the problems of getting pupillage and said, in all honesty, that he would struggle to get a pupillage nowadays, the standard of applicant is so high.

 THE ROLE OF THE LORD CHANCELLOR

The role of the Lord Chancellor was, traditionally, to protect justice. It was traditionally a role given to a heavyweight and experienced politician with legal experience. The task is not taken on by younger, more ambitious politicians. This has meant that the judges have less protection, exemplified by the “enemies of the people attack” on the Supreme Court and the failures to respond to it.

THE MAJOR PROBLEMS WITH ACCESS TO JUSTICE

There has been a major reduction in the availability of civil legal aid.  One feature of modern litigation is that the methods put in place to provide alternative funding has given rise to extensive litigation in itself. The increase in the number of litigants in person gives rise to problems for judges and the interests of justice.  The fact that legal aid is now dealt with by the Ministry of Justice means that legal aid has to compete, in essence, with matters such as the funding of prisons.  This means that the justice system comes off second best and is starved of funds.

THE MAJOR INCREASE IN COURT FEES

This was described as ill considered. It has had a serious effect on the interests of justice. Many small enterprises simply cannot afford to issue proceedings.

Outside the commercial field (and family courts) very few private law cases are heard by High Court judges.  The increase in funding and the rise in ADR means that, in 50 years time, the courts are likely to be solely the province of those who have an action against the state.

CIVIL PROCEDURE

Fifty years ago the delays in the civil courts were scandalous. The developments introduced after Woolf and Jackson means that judges have more control and the civil procedure is more efficient. However this sometimes leads to increased costs being incurred, particular in the area of disclosure. At the moment Lord Justice Jackson is consulting on further revision to the cost rules.

THE SUPREME COURT

Many people, including some of the advocates, had no clear idea of where the old Appellate Committee of the House of Lords used to sit. The movement to a separate building and the commencement of the Supreme Court has been a major, and positive step.  The Supreme Court has thousands of visitors each year (and has been a surprising hit on television).

A POSITIVE VIBE

Whilst I am sure that Lord Dyson would not use (or approve) of the word “vibe”,  however this  word best describes the overall tone of the talk.  There have been major improvements in judicial training, the selection process for QCs and civil procedure. Some of the young students who Lord Dyson has seen in training and in advocacy exercises are of the highest possible quality.

MY QUESTION

There were many questions after the lecture, however not one dealt with the one that would be most telling.  So I asked Lord Dyson personally afterwards. “What happened to your Yorkshire accent”. “Oh, it never went away. Listen hard and it still there”.

You know, if he had decided to practice in Leeds, I am sure his career would have blossomed…