First Minister

First Minister's Speech to the National Local Law Societies Conference

National Local Law Societies Conference
Friday 26 June 2015
Celtic Manor Resort, Newport

Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister of Wales


 Bore da

 Good Morning

Thank you to Monmouthshire Incorporated Law Society for organising this conference. I’m pleased to see that for the second time in three years the annual conference is being held here in Wales. It is a pleasure to open today’s conference, and I wish you all a warm welcome to these beautiful surroundings. Diolch yn fawr i Gymdeithas y Gyfraith Sir Fynwy am drefnu’r gynhadledd, ac mae’n bleser bod yma i agor y gynhadledd heddiw, a hynny mewn lleoliad mor odidog.

Much of today’s conference will focus on the challenges and opportunities currently facing the legal profession.

The legal sector has for some years been going through significant change, following the Legal Services Act 2007. Any change challenges traditional ways of working, but change also brings opportunities for those who are able to adapt. As the First Minister of Wales, I naturally want to see Wales being at the forefront in taking advantage of these opportunities. As a barrister I maintain a keen interest in the development of the legal profession and the justice system as a whole. Mae’n bwysig bod cyfreithwyr a chwmniau o Gymru yn manteisio’n llawn ar y cyfleoedd sydd ar gael.

This morning I want to reflect on the changing climate that we’re all working in. I would also like to share with you my thoughts on the way that the devolution journey is increasingly having an impact on the legal system within Wales.

The Changing Climate – access to justice

Elected representatives, the legal profession and indeed the judiciary here in Wales and beyond are watching closely the changes being made to the justice system by the UK Government, to ensure access to justice is not compromised. This is likely to be challenging, with, amongst other changes, further planned cuts in legal aid, further potential increases in court fees and a far-reaching programme to reform the Courts and Tribunals Service which the Justice Secretary spoke about earlier this week.

The priority of the Welsh Government is to ensure access to justice is not compromised. Reforms need to take full account of socio-economic circumstances, geography and barriers to accessing available technology within our communities. While these factors are not unique to Wales, their scale and concentration in certain areas represent a significant threat to access to justice to some of our more vulnerable people, whether they live in urban communities or rural areas.

I know that the Law Society has expressed its deep concern over further cuts to legal aid.

The Welsh Government will also be pressing Shailesh Vara and Michael Gove to “think again” about the funding cuts and to ensure the independent review that will commence in July 2016 to assess the impact of the fee cuts and dual contracting model is, indeed, truly independent and thorough.

The Minister for Public Services pressed the former coalition government on this very point back in March, asking them to review the range of funding cuts and increases in fees, and assurances were given at that time. The UK Government’s announcement on 10 June is a clear indication that our plea has fallen on deaf ears – not a position I am happy to leave unchallenged. I very much hope that Michael Gove will involve us in implementing further changes to courts and tribunals to ensure that access to justice remains a central principle of the justice system.

The evolution of Welsh law

I would now like to focus on sharing with you how a distinctive body of Welsh law is evolving, as well as outline ways in which the Welsh Government is actively supporting the legal profession.

In recent years, Wales has developed a distinct body of law increasingly divergent from the law that applies in England. We also have distinct institutional machinery, namely an executive (the Welsh Government) and a legislature (the National Assembly for Wales). Whilst the volume of England and Wales laws clearly outweighs Welsh legislation at this time, the balance will change as the Welsh Government continues to develop through its legislative programme distinct laws tailored to meet the needs and priorities of the people of Wales.

The establishment of a separate jurisdiction is likely to develop over time, though the pace of that journey remains uncertain at this stage. Devolution in Wales has shown itself to be a flexible and evolving constitutional model, which responds to and accommodates the legitimate aspirations of the people of Wales. We have recently gained new financial powers, and a further Wales Bill is being prepared. As we move into the fifth Assembly the pace of devolution continues.

What is clear is that we have to ensure there is a stronger Welsh identity in the Higher Courts of England and Wales. There is an acceptance of the principle that the legal business of people in Wales should be administered and dealt with in Wales wherever possible.

The ability of the people of Wales to access justice in the language of their choice is also important. This principle was recognised as far back as 1967 with the first Welsh Language Act, which guaranteed that, “In any legal proceeding in Wales or Monmouthshire the Welsh language may be spoken by any party, witness or other person who desires to use it ”. Mae’n hawl i defnyddio’r Gymraeg yn y llysoedd eisioes yn bodoli, ond mae hefyd yn bwysig i unigolion a sefydliadau ddefnyddio’r hawliau hyn a teimlo’n hyderus wrth fynegu eu dymuniadau ieithyddol.

There are other important aspects to ensuring that Wales’ position is taken into account within the legal and justice systems. For example, we need to maintain the requirement in primary legislation for at least one member of the Judicial Appointments Commission to have special knowledge of Wales, a role that has been admirably undertaken by Professor Noel Lloyd in recent years. Similarly, we need to ensure that the Judicial College and other institutions supporting the judicial system maintain awareness of the growing body of Welsh law.

Growing the Legal Sector in Wales

Wales is an excellent location for both indigenous and international financial and professional services companies. The Central Cardiff Enterprise Zone has a clear focus on attracting financial and business services companies, including those able to provide mid and back office functions to Wales-based companies. The Welsh Government will continue to take every opportunity to promote Wales as an attractive place for the legal sector to do business; a strong and agile legal sector being crucial to our economic prosperity.

Wales is already home to many successful law firms, with Eversheds, Hugh James, Capital Law, Geldards, Admiral Law, and Deloitte, amongst others. These and the numerous other Welsh law firms have access to a pool of highly skilled and professionally qualified people and law students and graduates in Wales.

We are fortunate in having such strength in our Law Schools in Wales. The Minister for Public Services and the Permanent Secretary recently brought representatives from the Law Schools together to discuss the importance of ensuring law students are taught about Welsh law, and areas where there is potential for collaboration and joint working.

The Rule of Law

A priority for the Welsh Government is upholding and promoting the rule of law which should be at the centre of good decision making and law making. We all need access to fair trials, legal certainty, respect for human rights and non-discrimination, along with the independence of the judiciary, and transparent and accessible law.

These are not aspirations, but basic, fundamental rights that have to be valued and safeguarded.

2015 has given us a unique opportunity to commemorate, celebrate and debate 800 years of Magna Carta, and encourage the development of relationships across jurisdictions within the United Kingdom.

The laws and policies we develop here in Wales need to operate within a legal and justice system which is currently under enormous pressure, not least the financial pressures of the current economic climate.

Access to justice is not simply about the courtroom where the laws we make can be interpreted and applied. Access to justice is about upholding the law of the land for all its citizens and not just those who can afford it. There is a risk that ongoing Ministry of Justice reforms to the justice system will erode the access to the rights we all hold dear, as written into Magna Carta.

Making the law easier to access is a challenge for us all and earlier this month Cardiff University launched a new website to provide social workers and practitioners with access to the current law on social care for children and young people in Wales. Developments such as this are very welcome in helping to improve access to the law in Wales.

Another positive development was announced by the Counsel General at an address he gave last week at the Law Society Summer Reception in Cardiff, which some of you may have attended. The Counsel General confirmed that in July a new online service the Welsh Government has developed in association with Westlaw UK will be launched.

‘Cyfraith Cymru Law Wales’ will provide an overview of the law of the Welsh constitution and of the devolved subject areas. The success of this new development will depend not only on the Welsh Government’s collaboration with Westlaw UK, but also on contributions from academia and the legal community – from you.

The website is being augmented by articles provided by Westlaw UK, adapted from its ‘Insight’ service, but many more articles will be required in order for the site to provide a comprehensive database and commentary of Welsh law. When the Counsel General made the announcement, he gave an open invitation to practitioners to participate in the process. I repeat that invitation to you today.

Closing Remarks

This is a time of significant change for the legal and justice systems in Wales and the United Kingdom as a whole. It has been a long time since we’ve seen this level of public interest in these matters. With the depth of understanding you have as practitioners of how the systems operate, it is vital your voice is heard in every aspect of the debate. Mae’n bwysig bod eich llais yn cael ei glywed.

I wish you a successful and productive conference. I would like to pay tribute to the work that the organisers have put into the event and this evening’s summer ball, and hope that you enjoy the Welsh scenery and hospitality. Mwynhewch y gynhadledd.


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