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Joshua Rozenberg
Thursday 31st December 2009
Joshua or Janus?

As newspapers fill their columns with reviews of 2009 and expectations for 2010, there is usually some harmless pleasure to be had from looking back at last year's predictions to see how accurate they were. My own modest offering, still available here, was the last piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph.

I started by underestimating the effect of the recession on recruitment and retention by City law firms. My own fault, no doubt, for believing the over-optimistic predictions of one particular managing partner.

I then predicted that the world's only permanent international criminal court would begin its first trial. Thomas Lubanga's trial certainly started - but it has not yet finished. I should have guessed that, in the hands of a prosecutor as incompetent as Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a straightforward trial would take more than a year to complete.

But that pales into insignificance compared with the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. A year ago, I said:

The most intriguing question for 2009 is whether it will mark the publication of Lord Saville's report into the Bloody Sunday shootings. The law lord finished taking evidence from all but a handful of witnesses in February 2004 and heard closing speeches in November of that year. He made it clear at the time that he planned to submit his report to the Government in the summer of 2005. Last year, he told surviving relatives of those killed in 1972 that the inquiry team was not likely to publish its report before the autumn of 2009. But I wouldn't hold your breath.

That much proved to be accurate. The report is now due to be handed to ministers during what is likely to be the run-up to a general election. That means it may not be published until the summer of 2010. The whole thing has been a scandalous waste of time and money. It is just not good enough for Lord Saville to say next year that the whole thing took him longer that he had intended or expected.

If the Tories win that election, we shall not see any immediate changes to the Human Rights Act. Instead, we are promised detailed public debate on what a "British" Bill of Rights might contain. In the end, I don't think anyone will notice much difference.

And I can see no prospect whatsoever of any significant change to the libel laws by secondary legislation before the election, despite Jack Straw's apparent change-of-heart over the need for reform.

Legal Aid - the responsibility of the Legal Services Commission - seems to stagger from crisis to crisis. Meanwhile, I suspect that we shall see increasingly tense relations between the Legal Services Board - which is the ‘super-regulator' of legal services in England and Wales - and the two main professional regulators, the Law Society and the Bar Council. Those bodies have delegated their regulatory functions to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board respectively; but they are still very much in control. And it is becoming clear that these two regulatory branches do not see eye-to-eye with the Legal Services Board. Time to dust down that slightly dated headline, Bar Wars.

But the first legal story of 2010 - and the one that I would expect to dominate the year, is costs. Lord Justice Jackson agreed to complete his year-long inquiry into the costs of civil litigation by today and he has done so. But he has promised us (and perhaps himself) a little time to recover from 2009 and so his report will not be published until January 14th.  It will be a substantial document of great importance to the future of the civil courts. But the fact that it can be printed in two or three weeks over the Christmas break makes one wonder how Lord Saville can maintain that his report into the events of Bloody Sunday needed several months to print.

I remember telling people in the spring of 1997 that it was good to have a change of government after one party had been in power for a lengthy period. That remains my view. The only difference between then and now is that people in Britain were absurdly idealistic at that time about what an incoming Labour government could do - just as they were in the United States last year when they pinned all their hopes on another charismatic, young and inexperienced political leader. I suspect that we are all rather more realistic now.

Even so, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are tributes to some of that idealism. If Tony Blair had understood the consequences of these measures -- think defence against terrorists and MPs' expenses -- he would never have approved them. Perhaps that's the real reason he sacked Lord Irvine as Lord Chancellor in 2003.

Like Derry Irvine, none of us knows what the future has in store. But I wish all my readers a happy new year.

 
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About Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.

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