A new chapter in the story of UK legal success

Today’s thriving legal services build on a foundation 800 years in the making

December 06, 2020
Photo: Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy Stock Photo

Legal services are one of the UK’s greatest exports. They are at the heart of our economic prosperity and a magnet for international businesses. The fairness and predictability of our legal system, coupled with the exceptional legal expertise we have to offer, draws businesses from across the globe. This sector alone rakes in over a whopping £25bn each year. For context, that is more than double the amount that we bring in through the arts.Naturally, these figures bring great delight to my honourable friends at the Treasury, but they also bring a tangible impact for people across the country. From Edinburgh to Bristol, legal hubs across the UK provide over 300,000 jobs—all of which are helping our economy grow and recover from the impact of the pandemic.

The fundamental tenets of our success are straightforward—legal certainty and respect for the rule of law. These immutable principles have been refined over 800 years of our evolving common law. They have given us three competitive advantages: the strength of English and Welsh law; an extremely high calibre of expertise; and a world renowned legal infrastructure.

First, one of the UK legal services sector’s core competitive advantages is the strength—and breadth of application—of English and Welsh law. Initially defined in Magna Carta, its principles carry symbolic relevance within our legal system today.

With around 40 per cent of all global contracts carried out using English and Welsh law, it is a guardian of fairness and freedom for nations around the world—and its flexibility means that it can be used to resolve a range of international commercial legal issues.

Second, alongside having the highest calibre of legal expertise in our sector, the UK is also world-renowned for its independent judiciary and commercial courts. Indeed, the commercial courts had a record year in 2019, with cases up 63 per cent compared to 2018 and parties from over 78 countries represented. Almost two-thirds of these cases were international, showing just how well-regarded our system is across the world.

The breadth of expertise and experience among the judiciary, the integrity of UK judges and the fast and fair delivery of cases continue to make UK courts the world’s destination of choice for parties to resolve their disputes.

What the UK offers in terms of unrivalled legal expertise is backed up by a world-renowned infrastructure for resolving commercial disputes. Our arbitration, mediation and adjudication services offer an efficient, flexible and impartial venue for dispute resolution for clients in any part of the world.

We will soon have an independent trade policy for the first time in over 40 years. This presents a unique opportunity to look beyond our European partners and establish dynamic relationships with fast-growing markets, such as those in Africa and Asia.

I am going to champion this and will take every opportunity to emphasise how resilient, sturdy and steadfast our legal system is— not least given the challenges that we have overcome during the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, we followed Public Health England advice and closed almost half of all courts to stop the spread of the virus. We immediately rolled out video technology across the estate so we could deliver justice for victims. This decision ensured those who needed our courts most were protected—including vulnerable women provided with safety by Domestic Abuse Protection Orders and children removed from dangerous situations through Child Protection Orders.

Thanks to these efforts, it was of little surprise to me that we were one of the first countries in the world to get jury trials back up and running after coronavirus struck. Work continues at pace to drive this recovery further—investing millions in courts, recruiting 1,600 new staff, and opening more temporary Nightingale venues to boost capacity and deliver speedier justice for all.

While there continue to be unprecedented challenges, we are already seeing the fruits of our labour; magistrates’ backlogs continue to fall, and the number of cases being resolved in the crown courts has nearly trebled since April.

The legal services sector has a robust foundation and I am in no doubt that it will bounce back from the adverse impacts of the pandemic. In fact, its trade surplus, which doubled over the past 10 years to £6.5bn, will be a crucial boost for the wider economy.

This country’s new independence on the international stage may be met with apprehension by some, but we should take courage from the innovation and collaboration that has set our legal services sector apart. It is with this vigour that we will seize the international trade opportunities that lie ahead of us in the coming months and years.

This article features in Prospect's new legal report in partnership with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, Jones Day and the City of London Corporation