At the Scottish Mediation conference, Professor Gurchathen Sanghera, a specialist in peace, conflict and violence from the School of International Relations at St Andrews University, described a future on the near horizon which could only be described as dystopian.
He commented on identity issues, including trans rights and associated rising hate crimes; racism and conflict in and among diasporic communities; sectarianism which has been impacted by Brexit and the independence debates; divisive climate activism and the impact, on the poorest and most vulnerable, of deeper and longer-term austerity. He described some parts of our population as “unreachable”.
A few days later, the launch of Financial Inclusion for Scotland brought together agencies and individuals at the sharp end of addressing the poverty, hunger and heating crisis which is becoming more pronounced in our communities. There were eloquent contributions from those most affected which, frankly, shocked me. For a proportion of our society, living on the edges, life is really, really difficult. One contributor spoke of a return to hunger not seen since Victorian times. We learned that 850,000 people in Scotland have no savings to fall back on.
Later that day, an event in the Scottish Parliament launched a report by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries on the “Great Risk Transfer”. This describes the often wholly unrecognised trend of the transfer of risk from institutions – such as employers, the state and financial services providers – to individuals. This impacts on pensions, job security, insurance and so on, and amounts to a profound change in the way that individuals are expected to organise their lives and finances. It is one of the most significant social, financial, and political challenges of our time. Even those who consider themselves relatively financially aware feel ill-equipped to deal with the risks they now face.
Why do I mention all of this? Well, I feel ignorant about much of this. I wonder how many others of us in, or associated with, the legal profession feel the same?
With these themes in mind, I have been reflecting on how lawyers are often denigrated as “fat cats”. I note the regular announcements in the media about the substantial turnover and profits achieved by larger law firms and the reported earnings of senior partners. Firm X recently reported annual turnover of £78.6m and profit rising to £35.7m. Firm Y reported revenue of £98.5m and operating profit increasing to £46.1m. For professional services firms, I ponder: why is this considered newsworthy? And what is the impact on public perception at times like these?
All of this comes when there are significant real term cuts in Scotland’s justice budget, affecting financing of policing, courts and legal aid. In turn, these affect many lawyers of course, not least in the field of criminal justice. The disparity seems striking.
Many law firm employees will also experience the effects of poverty, directly or indirectly, and it is gratifying that some firms have announced additional payments to staff this year. Many in the profession give both time and money to assist those in most need. And there are pro bono initiatives which bring great credit to those involved.
As a whole, though, does the legal profession play its full role as an important institution in the fabric of Scottish life? What more could be done to make a difference at times like these? And, to be provocative, to what extent might the profession be complicit, as part of the extractive economic system which we now recognise does so much harm?
There is one immediate step some of us might take. All households in the UK are being given a payment of £400 this winter towards increasing energy costs. Some of us will not need that payment. If we have not already done so, perhaps we could consider donating this amount (or more or less) to our preferred charity or to another worthy cause? Alternatively, the Corra Foundation is setting up a mechanism to receive donations and ensure that every penny reaches those who need it most, now. Watch out for the launch very soon of GIVE400.scot.
John Sturrock KC recently published ‘A Mediator’s Musings Volume 2’, available on Amazon, with all proceeds going to stroke research.