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An oath can’t make lawyers more honest

BIG changes are afoot in the legal world, not least those arising from the reforms which the profession is going to see under the Legal Services Act. This will include the introduction of so-called Tesco Law, which will see non-lawyers increasingly involved in the provision of legal services. In the face of this brave new world, some solicitors are worried that the profession might lose its character. Something must be done, they say, to bond solicitors together.

One idea, which has been debated in academic lecture halls and pubs around the City, apparently seriously, is the idea of a “Hippocratic oath” for lawyers.

The idea of applying an idea devised by Hippocrates – who called for doctors to obey ethical principles when carrying out their duties – to lawyers came from the Tory peer Lord Hunt of Wirral in a recent Law Society-commissioned report about the regulation of the profession.

Hunt, a solicitor and a senior consultant at national firm Beachcroft, argued in his report that solicitors had to “vigorously reassert” their professional values. His idea was for an oath to be taken when solicitors received their Legal Practice Certificate.

The Law Society’s council, its governing body, is due to consider the idea. It is number 75 of Hunt’s 88 recommendations and so possibly not top of Chancery Lane’s agenda – which might be a good thing, given the scepticism of most lawyers.

“Completely bonkers,” was the frank view of Kerry Underwood, senior partner at Hertfordshire firm Underwoods Solicitors. The solicitor pointed out that there is already a Solicitors’ Code of Conduct. “If we break it we are struck off,” he says. Has anyone ever drawn any comfort from the fact that their doctor has taken an oath?, he wanted to know. “Presumably that nice Mr Shipman had taken the Hippocratic Oath.”

It “would make about the same amount of difference in the public’s mind as MPs giving a Solonian oath to uphold democratic values without using their position to feather their own nest”, reckoned the campaigning lawyer Martyn Day, senior partner of Leigh Day & Co (Solon was the Greek founder of democracy in around 500 BC, who said we should “put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath”.)

The public is “cynical about lawyers, MPs, and journalists” and “no amount of swearing would make any difference”, Day continued. Doctors retain “an element of public regard” but “a small amount” was down to the swearing of an oath, he reckons, “and much more to do with the appreciation that being a doctor is a vocation”. The idea was likely to “simply lead to more hypocrisy from the profession”, reckoned Donald Stewart, a London partner with the US firm Faegre & Benson LLP. “We’re all officers of the court and owe an allegiance to truth and justice which goes beyond the narrow confines of pursuing our clients’ interests no matter what,” he said.

Stewart pointed to increasing legislation directed at lawyers, such as anti-money laundering provisions, requiring them “to become additional eyes and ears of the law enforcement authorities – in spite of the obvious dangers this poses to legitimate civil liberties”. “You can’t make people honest by asking them to utter magic words,” he argued. “Honesty is a value which, if it is to flourish and become widespread, has to be reinforced by the culture around it”. The idea of a lawyers’ Hippocratic Oath “seemed like just one more rule, one more desperate clutch at the straw,” he said.

And what might go in a lawyers’ Hippocratic Oath? “I swear that I will do my best not to be drunk on occasions when I’m duty solicitor, to avoid sleeping with my divorce clients, to steal no more than 10 per cent of clients’ money in any calendar year and to remember that no one day can contain more than 30 chargeable hours, except in a legally-aided matter,” offered Kerry Underwood. Mark Stephens, media lawyer and partner at London-based Finers Stephens Innocent, kept his proposed lawyers’ oath short and sweet: “I swear to only take on people who are innocent as clients.”
Jon Robins is director of the legal research company Jures (www.jures.co.uk) and a freelance journalist.