Broken ribs

February 20, 2022

One day, a long time ago, the school bell rang and within seconds the corridor was its normal state of total chaos. Kids running into each other and by each other, snatching moments of freedom as they raced to their next class; a jostling swirl of chatter and limbs. It is a noise that only schools possess when the energy of adolescence meets a gap in the timetable and an enclosed space.

I pushed by a group of lads as others pushed by me. Then, a second later, my world was literally tipped upside down. I was on the floor and being violently kicked by the boys I had just pushed by. My mistake was to have bumped into the school’s most feared bully and his associates. That evening, home from a brief visit to the local hospital, I nursed two broken ribs and some dented pride.

I don’t think about it very often, but occasionally it pops into my mind. I was about 13 years old and I was already six feet tall, but only about eight stones wringing wet. My grandfather used to tease me for disappearing if I turned sideways, and he often chuckled that the only reason I stayed upright was my size ten feet. Age 13 my ribs were easy to break, there was no padding like the well lagged man I am today.

I wasn’t bullied very much at school, but I know it left a mark. I know for example that my confidence dips when I feel vulnerable. I know that I also carry an anxiety that makes me very circumspect around people who are arrogant and overbearing; and I cannot stand to see bullying anywhere in any shape or form.

Television, radio and newspapers last week were full of the harrowing stories of sub-postmasters speaking at the Inquiry into the Post Office scandal. I felt I needed to say something, to mark the start of the Inquiry, so on 15 February I posted a tweet that said:

Screenshot 2022-02-16 182739

I used the word “ashamed” quite deliberately because I am ashamed. I am ashamed because lawyers have facilitated corporate bullying on an industrial scale. I am also ashamed because from the day I qualified on 16 February 1987 until 15 February 2022, I had never felt before that there was something fundamentally wrong with the legal profession. I know things go wrong, and I know there will always be bad apples, but I have never believed in a systemic flaw.

I am now certain, however, that there is indeed such a systemic flaw. For too long lawyers have conflated gold-plated client service, demonstrable commerciality and their own aspirational advancement, and elevated these three things to be the loadstar of high-performance professionalism. In doing so lawyers have walked passed their one true calling, to be the balance in the system that ensures the powerful cannot bully without consequences.

The Post Office, and others, have used legal process to facilitate egregious bullying when their lawyers should have been the last hope for doing the right thing. The Post Office did not break ribs, the Post Office broke lives.

As a profession we need to pause for thought. We need to get a grip of our moral compass, and we need to see that we have become part of the problem when by definition we should be part of the solution.

This is an existential moment for lawyers who for decades have been force fed on the lexicon of needing to be “business partners” of “never saying no” and “finding a creative way” to meet the client’s needs. Enough. This is a reset moment.

The time has come for lawyers to reassert that their primary responsibility is to act in the best interests of justice, not their clients, and to do so with integrity and independence. It is time for lawyers to be proud that they give advice without fear or favour, and that if necessary they will challenge even their most high-profile and fee-heavy clients because doing the right thing always matters more than doing the expedient thing. It is a time for all lawyers to promise that they will never, ever facilitate bullying again.

The majority, the vast majority, of course can hold their heads high, but that is an even greater reason to reclaim what makes the legal profession precious and vital. The profession must not slide to a place where it is little more than a home for well-spoken and expensive system-gamers.

There should be no place for bullying in the school corridor; but there must never, ever be a place for bullying in our legal system.

Take care. Paul xx

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