Becoming president of the Law Society a week after the prime minister launched a populist attack on “lefty” lawyers presents David Greene with a challenging dilemma.
In Covid-disrupted times, the upbeat solicitor and dancing enthusiast must keep in close step with the Ministry of Justice amid efforts to revive the partially suspended justice system and tackle its vast backlog of unheard cases.
Simultaneously he is determined to defend the rule of law as the government, after years of underfunding the courts, appears to be running a campaign to scapegoat parts of the legal profession.
In his speech to the virtual Conservative party conference last week Boris Johnson pledged to prevent “the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the home secretary [Priti Patel] would doubtless – and rightly – call the lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders.”
Greene, who takes up his post on Wednesday , acknowledges solicitors have not always been popular. The latest denunciations, however, Greene fears, represent real “dangers”. They follow the release of a video by the Home Officer on Twitter, in August, criticising “activist lawyers” for allegedly frustrating the department’s efforts to deport people with no right to remain in the UK. It was later taken down.
When condemnation of lawyers is “put in the rhetorical framework of a conference speech, the dangers that go with it are not realised”, warns Greene.
“These are lawyers doing their job, whether it’s in immigration or criminal defence work. They are upholding the law as it stands. Yet they are being criticised.
“That has inherent dangers particularly when picked up by the press who start naming lawyers. There’s a tendency to identify lawyers with their clients’ cases or problems. [That is] wholly incorrect and inappropriate because the lawyer is there to represent [someone else].”
In countries like Colombia, Greene cautions, that approach ultimately leads to death threats, violence and lawyers needing bodyguards.
“We are in a febrile climate. We have huge uncertainties brought about by Covid-19. There’s the added uncertainty over Brexit. We have to go back to basics: rule of law, access to justice and independence of the judiciary.
“I don’t think I have seen a time when the rule of law was quite so centre stage. Normally it’s unexamined, unsaid, [accepted]. As lawyers it’s our duty to protect the rule of law. If we don’t speak up, we can’t expect others to do it [for us].”
Greene, who has been at the same London law firm, Edwin Coe, since leaving school, is experienced at the interface between law and politics. He represented clients during both the 2016 article 50 Brexit and 2019 prorogation court challenges. He has also stood twice, unsuccessfully, as a Labour parliamentary candidate in 1983 and 2005 – in Surrey and Buckinghamshire.
As president of the Law Society, an elected post he holds for a year, Greene will be in charge of the professional body that represents the more than 140,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales. Numbers have been rising steadily but the pandemic threatens to reverse the trend.
Covids dislocation of the justice system – resulting in some criminal trials being delayed as far ahead as 2022 – has hit hardest the most precarious sections of the profession: those who rely on relatively poorly paid public funding and legal aid. Expenditure on legal aid fell by 37% between 2010 and 2018.
The shortage of defence solicitors is well documented. “The quantity of defence lawyers is reducing and their age increasing,” Greene warns. “We have been saying for a long time that this system is in crisis because money is not being put into criminal justice. Legal aid lawyers often struggle.”
The value of the services solicitors add to people’s lives, he believes, is repeatedly “undervalued”. Turnover of the legal sector in the UK, for example, has been estimated at £60bn a year.
One key issue during his tenure will be how to improve diversity in the profession. “It’s so important for people of different ethnicities and different social backgrounds to be able to talk to [and be represented by] lawyers with whom they are familiar because they look like them, talk like them and understand their problems,” says Greene.
He is concerned that too few black lawyers become judges or partners in law firms. Just 1.1% of QCs and 1% of court judges in England and Wales are black, according to 2019 data. The Law Society is already studying the experience of black lawyers and how they can progress to leadership positions. And some progress is being made. The next two solicitors scheduled to succeed Greene in office are Stephanie Boyce, who will be the first black Law Society president, followed in 2022 by Lubna Shuja, a solicitor of Asian descent.
He is also keen not to forget others who feel excluded, such as white, working-class boys and disabled people. “We must have a profession that is open, flexible and works to enhance inclusion,” he insists.
Before joining the Labour party, Greene was a member of the Young Communist League. He has acted, he stresses, however, against both Labour and Conservative governments.
His clients have included victims of the Lockerbie bombing, the Hillsborough disaster, shareholders of Railtrack, sex workers and striking miners. He helped pioneer group actions which he has said are “often the only way that citizens and consumers can gain access to the court”.
Greene has also been a regular visitor to sub-Saharan Africa over the past three decades where he has worked on dispute resolution programmes and human rights issues on a voluntary, pro bono basis.
He will, no doubt, draw on that experience when he defends the rule of law and goes into battle with the Treasury for additional resources for the beleaguered criminal justice system.
Family: Partner. Three children from a previous relationship.
Lives: North London.
Education: St George’s College, Weybridge, Surrey; Edwin Coe, London law firm, apprenticeship, qualified as a lawyer (1980); Birkbeck College, University of London, politics MA.
Career: 2011-present: senior partner, Edwin Coe; 1984-2011; partner, Edwin Coe; 1980-84: solicitor, Edwin Coe; 1976-80: apprentice, Edwin Coe.
Public life 2020–2021: president, Law Society; former member, civil justice council; former member, civil procedure rules committee.
Interests: Dancing, watching Arsenal, London Irish rugby and Surrey cricket teams, theatre, pilates, tennis, music – Wagner, modern English jazz and old ska.