The City needs to redefine its role as the world’s legal centre

September 24, 2023

For centuries, the UK’s success as a trading nation and leading centre for international finance has rested on its reputation as a trusted partner where justice and the rule of law prevail.

In recent years, legal services have also been a valuable contributor to UK prosperity in its own right, with many international disputes settled in English courts.

However, as the UK re-examines its future post Brexit, and with multiple reviews underway for how to make the UK financial sector more competitive, there is a danger of overlooking the legal sector.

This would be a mistake. Strengthening the legal sector is essential to the UK’s future prosperity, not just because it generates jobs and incomes, but because of its role in supporting trade and innovation in many other sectors. There is a scarcely a transaction in business or the financial sector that does not involve legal services.

To support the legal sector, two critical issues need to be addressed: the first is promoting the use of English common law globally; the second is investing more in the domestic justice system that underpins our legal system.

The flexibility of English common law is a key part of what makes the UK an attractive place to do business, helping foster openness and innovation in the commercial world.

There is great opportunity here, with fast-growing areas such as sustainable finance, Fintech and crypto all able to benefit from doing business in the UK.

There is also growing threat from other centres, such as Amsterdam and Singapore, increasingly marketing themselves as competitors to London in dispute resolution.

Underpinning commercial law activities is the UK justice system, the bedrock of modern society and envy of the world. It is one of the distinctive features of the UK that others seek to emulate.

However, the criminal justice system, unlike civil law, is in poor shape: court backlogs are at an all-time high with many court facilities in need of repair and upgrading. Criminal barristers, often drawn from the best students, have been through a difficult period regarding pay and terms, with increasing prevalence of stress and mental health issues. There have even been cases of barristers breaking down in court because of stress.

The civil courts cannot be separated from the criminal justice system. Problems in the criminal justice system risk knock-on effect, tarnishing the reputation of the courts system with consequential damage to UK plc.

The City is well placed to assist with both promoting English common law globally and strengthening the justice system, for the benefit of the entire UK. By leveraging its convening capabilities, it can also bring appropriate attention to the reforms required.

The good news is that there are precedents for this: after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008/9, the City of London was actively involved in helping strengthen the financial services industry including setting up TheCityUK. Now we need to repeat for the legal sector.

Sushil Saluja is the former executive director for technology at the Bank of England, head of financial services for Europe at Accenture and founding board member of TheCityUK