(Another) Bar Standards Board faux pas?

There’s an interesting speech given by Baroness Deech on Legal Education.  It appears from the text of the speech that it was given to a group of South African Lawyers.  It begins… “There is no more appropriate nation than S. Africa in which to examine legal education and the lawyers that it produces.”  I ask every lawyer reading this blog to pause and think of the most famous South African lawyer.

I think, not unusually I suspect, immediately of Nelson Mandela but Baroness Deech turns to Lords Hoffmann and Steyn, Sydney Kentridge or Edwin Cameron, as “names that bring credit to S. African legal education.”  Fair enough.  It is a great, although entirely white, list.  Shortly thereafter she writes this passage, “The courageous defence of the rule of law is almost synonymous with S. African lawyers [I note in passing the “almost”].  Those who defended Mandela and his colleagues, not with violence but with legal skill, are the ones who still today symbolise the peaceful resolution of the world’s great international law problems.”

No mention is made of Mandela’s legal career (he used to run free clinics for black South Africans) and the words “not with violence” send out – I think- a clear message of reproach.  I may be wrong, and would be interested in other peoples’ thoughts, particularly Baroness Deech’s herself, but this seems to me a questionable thing for a Chairwoman of the Bar Standards Board to do. Of course there is a debate to be had about the use of force against repressive political regimes (even where violence is directed at property not people); but in a speech supposedly celebrating legal education and South African legal education in particular is it really appropriate to speak of one of the greatest political figures of our lifetime in this way?  Most pertinently is it a speech that should be disseminated on the Bar Standards Board website?

I have my doubts.  What do others think?

10 thoughts on “(Another) Bar Standards Board faux pas?

  1. The more times I read the quote, the less sense it makes. But as to the most famous South African lawyer, I do not think of Nelson Mandela. He is the most famous South African, but I’d say most, including lawyers, see him as a politician and peace maker rather than a lawyer.

    1. Nick, I sort of agree. I think Mandela is the most famous SA lawyer but not famous for being a lawyer. Actually, I’d have opted for Albie Sachs as the most famous for being a lawyer but not with any great thought or out of any wish to say he is better than Hoffman et al, all very and justifiably singled out. It’s the way Mandela IS discussed which concerns me.

  2. I have had this comment sent in by email from someone who prefers to remain anonymous:

    “I think the whole speech is a shocker, when not replete with neo-colonial smugness, it is a shockingly non-independent statement about legal education to come from the Chair of a supposedly independent regulator. “

  3. No Arthur Chaskelson? Navi Pillay? Penny Andrews? Albie Sachs? The list is odd (i base this on your post rather than having read speech). In the particular context of whaf Dyzenhaus so well characterised as a ‘wicked legal system’ law and lawyers–brave and important as SA lawyers were and are–arguably only went so far. I am always reluctant to say violent resistance is legitimate or justifiable, but in some cases it is more complex than conveyed in this speech. It is also of course a fiction to suggest law on its own resolved the SA situation…or indeed that RSA is not still a transitional and hugely unequal state where questions of discrimination, racism, inequality etc… remain as yet incompletely resolved.

  4. Mandela was not a great lawyer and may have only been a good one. You cannot mention his name with the likes of Hoffmann, Steyn and Kentridge. Doing so makes a nonsense of the argument of great SA lawyers. Mandela may have been the face of post apartheid SA and achieved something remarkable in the transition in SA but to call him a great lawyer is just wrong. Lord Hoffmann holds top spot closely followed by the remarkable and likable Sir Sydney.

    1. Thanks FB. I don’t really care to rate people in order. And my point is not really whether Mandela is a great lawyer or not: it is the insinuation of the “almost synonymous” and reference to “not with violence” in the context of discussing Mandela, not as a lawyer but as a client, which I find troubling. And that this should be done under the flag of the BSB.

  5. Moreover, the lawyers she mentions all came to the UK to make their careers and disconnected themselves from South Africa. Are they really South African lawyers? Hardly.

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