2013 Temple Bar Scholar Report
London is a city steeped in centuries of history, a history that echoes in the city's streets and buildings. At the same time, the city is thoroughly contemporary, one of the central hubs of the world's economic and cultural life in the twenty-first century. A walk through the narrow streets gives a view of a city both firmly rooted in the past and striding boldly into the future. The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and the ancient stones of the Tower of London stand alongside sleek skyscrapers, new ones seemingly going up every day. This duality between the old and the new is especially pronounced among the barristers and judges of London, who inhabit their own tradition-steeped world: Legal London. The Temple Bar Scholarship, which offered a four-week insider's tour of Legal London, provided an enlightening look into this world and the ways in which the deep roots of its common-law heritage have proven remarkably adaptable to an ever-changing world.
Right from the beginning of the Temple Bar program, we were given a potent reminder of the continued importance of history and tradition to the practice of law in London. On our first day, we visited the Old Bailey, the site of London's central criminal court since the 17th century. Our host was Judge John Bevan, who regaled us with tales from his career and reflected on the role of the judge in a criminal trial. Before we took a tour of the building, he told us to look out for a small plaque that noted the place where, in 1670, a jury had refused to follow the judge's instructions to convict William Penn and William Mead of "preaching to an unlawful assembly." On appeal, the court issued an opinion upholding the jury's right to give a verdict according to their convictions, a principle of the common law that survives to this day. And, thanks in part to the fact that William Penn left to found the state of Pennsylvania just a few years later, that principle has come to be enshrined in American law as well. There was no doubt about the continuing relevance of this particular bit of history, as Judge Bevan invited us into his courtroom to observe him deliver closing instructions to a jury and send them off to render their own judgment according to their convictions.
This link between past and present continued to be a prominent theme during our first week, as we got a fascinating introduction to the institutions and people at the heart of Legal London. On our second day, we were guests at the Opening of the Legal Year Ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The judges and barristers of London, in full ceremonial regalia, participated in a service that dates back to the Middle Ages, reflecting on the meaning of the rule of law before beginning another year of implementing it on a day-to-day basis. Then, later that day, we felt like we had entered a time warp as we visited the sleek Rolls Building, constructed in 2011 to house London's commercial courts. Meeting with Justice Cooke, we learned that the Rolls Building was built to serve as a center of dispute resolution not just for England, but for the entire region. In its state-of-the-art courtrooms, the English common-law system has proven remarkably adaptable, as parties from Russia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East choose to resolve their disputes there.
Also during our first week, we visited each of the four Inns of Court, the professional associations for barristers, as well as the Royal Courts of Justice and the Temple Church. Our visits to these historic-but still very much alive-places were intermingled with meetings with some of the most important figures in Legal London. We met with the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, and the President of the UK Supreme Court, among many others. It was a true privilege to meet with and learn from these luminaries, and I was especially struck by their openness and honesty about both the strengths and weaknesses of the English legal system, and the challenges it faces in the present day. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the cost of the system in an age of austerity. In part because of the high standard of quality for both barristers and judges, the English legal system is extremely expensive and faces difficulties in providing access to justice for poor and marginalized communities. Recent cuts to legal aid budgets, we learned, have intensified the pressures on the system.
After the packed schedule of meetings and tours in our first week, the next two weeks provided a welcome chance to settle in to a more regular pace. Each of us was assigned to shadow some of England's leading commercial barristers and watch them at work; I was assigned to 7 King's Bench Walk one week and to Fountain Court the next. To an American lawyer's eyes, the bifurcation between solicitors and barristers is one of the most notable distinguishing features of the English legal system. Solicitors and barristers form a two-part conduit between clients and the court, with the solicitors facing the client and the barristers facing the court. Barristers generally do not take instruction from clients or even meet directly with clients before trial. Instead, they work with the solicitors to prepare the case for trial and then are charged with actually presenting the case in court. As a result, barristers are specialists and well-practiced repeat players when it comes to courtroom advocacy. In my view, one important effect of this is that barristers depend on maintaining a strong reputation for trustworthiness with judges and with their peers. They are less likely than American lawyers to make outlandish arguments or rely heavily on empty rhetoric. In this sense, England's barristers do an excellent job of self-regulating and preserving strong norms of professional conduct.
Our final week in London provided an exciting conclusion to the Temple Bar Scholarship, as we worked in the UK Supreme Court. The Justices were remarkably hospitable toward us, treating us to a memorable dinner at the House of Lords, which was just one of many instances of their exceptional generosity with their time throughout the week. The UK Supreme Court is one of the most visible signs of change in Legal London. The institution itself only became independent in 2009-prior to that time, members of the House of Lords sat as England's highest court. But an even more important change in recent years has been the increasing importance of European law, especially the European Convention of Human Rights, in English jurisprudence.
One of the most fundamental differences between the UK and US legal systems has traditionally been the presence of judicial review in the United States, as compared to the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom. Parliament is still sovereign in the UK, but the Human Rights Act of 1998 has introduced at least a soft version of judicial review. The Act vests the Supreme Court with authority to issue a declaration of incompatibility, which is a judicial pronouncement that a particular Act of Parliament is incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. This new power inevitably draws the Justices into cases involving hot-button political issues, testing the time-honored British tradition of keeping the legal system strictly apolitical. During our week at the Court, we observed an example of this: a tense three-day oral argument regarding the standard for determining whether a mentally incapacitated person has suffered a "deprivation of liberty" under the European Convention. The case prompted fascinating conversations with the Justices and their judicial assistants (what we in America would call law clerks) about how the Court navigates the complicated landscape of UK and European law.
The Temple Bar Scholarship was an unforgettable experience, a chance to learn about the rich heritage of the UK legal system and observe how it is constantly evolving. The development of the law mirrors the development of the city itself, as layers of history set out the framework on which each generation hopes to build and grow. None of this would have been possible without the warm welcomes we received throughout our time in London. If the people we met are any indication, the future of the UK legal system is in very good hands indeed.
Nathan Rehn---is currently employed as a law clerk for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States. He served previously as an associate in the firm of Susman Godfrey in New York, where he drafted, argued, and won partial summary judgment in a breach of contract case involving over $1 billion in damages. Rehn earned his juris doctor degree from Columbia University in 2009, where he won the John Ordronaux Prize as first in his graduating class. He was also a Kent Scholar and a recipient of the Peter Jay Sharp Scholarship, and served as Essays and Reviews Editor for the Columbia Law Review. Upon graduating from law school, Rehn made his way to Sonipat, India, where he served on the faculty of Jindal Global Law School for one year. He earned his bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and worked as a proprietary trader before enrolling at law school.