Times Law Awards 2024: Alex Chalk speech

Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk congratulated winners at the Times Law Awards 2024

 The Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP

My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to join you tonight.

I am, as you’ve just heard, the Lord Chancellor. It was a predecessor of mine who went along to HMP Wormwood Scrubs, and the Governor said, “thank you very much for coming” and “if you wouldn’t mind addressing the prisoners, please”.  He thought it was a bit strange, but that he had better do as he was told. Anyway, the prisoners were in the exercise yard, and they were looking at him - rather as you are now - and he was looking at them - rather as I am now - and he didn’t know how to begin, so he just said, “I’m delighted to see you all here.”  But I am, I am delighted to see you all here!

Thank you, Lord Grabiner, for inviting me, and for your kind introduction. I am told Lord Grabiner is standing down as Head of Chambers; but he is definitely not retiring from One Essex Court…or indeed defecting. I want to make that clear as well.

Thank you too to The Times and One Essex Court for organising and sponsoring this wonderful event.

Now, the essay question this year is about AI. I know some of you are worried that AI is coming for your jobs. After the local election results in Cheltenham, I’m not entirely unsympathetic…

But actually, being at the Times Law Awards reminds me that I’ve been in post for a year. This was the first event I spoke at as Lord Chancellor. By current standards a year’s not bad going – longer I’m told than at least three of the last ten Lord Chancellors. And about the going rate for a First Minister of Scotland.

But one of the consequences of becoming Lord Chancellor and being cloistered in the MOJ for a year, is that when there is a defection you find out about colleagues that you never knew existed…

And what a pleasure it is to be back in this extraordinary building. This is the place where Lady Jane Grey was sentenced to death, where Henry Garnet was actually executed as an accessory to the Gunpowder Plot. And just outside, beneath Guildhall Yard, lie the ruins of London’s first Roman amphitheatre where criminals were routinely put to death. To you that may sound like history. To me, it sounds like inspiration for a manifesto. I am joking, that was a joke. Seriously.

The essay question this year is topical. I won’t seek to add to the erudition in so many of these essays. Instead, I want to make a few observations about context: specifically, AI’s place as part of a gathering global lawtech revolution – a revolution in which we can credibly say that England and Wales is at the leading edge.

This jurisdiction has of course, long been fertile ground for innovation. It isn’t by luck, still less sentimentality, or tradition, that English and Welsh common law is used as the basis for over a quarter of the world’s 320 legal jurisdictions. It’s not out of habit that international businesses choose our law to govern their contracts, and our courts to settle their disputes. Nor is it mere coincidence that we have the largest legal sector in Europe, second only to the USA in the world rankings.

The success of our justice system for centuries has been underpinned by its ability to evolve, to adapt and to modernise, while never losing sight of its values and its standards.

And in that spirit, let us not see our current leading position as a high watermark. Let us instead see it as the springboard for further success. We must be relentlessly ambitious to increase our legal sector’s international market share.

We don’t want that simply for the sake of it, although getting one over on France is helpful from time to time! We do it because of what it can deliver for our people and our economy. We achieve that principally on the basis of our people. Our legal profession and our judiciary are rightly renowned around the world for quality and integrity. That will remain, of course, far and away our most precious asset. But increasingly important in future will be our ability to harness new and changing technology.  

And what are our competitors up to?

In Singapore, the Supreme Court now uses a digital transcription system to capture court proceedings, meaning that transcripts can be turned around rapidly, including near real time transcription with annotations made by judges during hearings.

And they are developing a generative AI programme to help users of the Small Claims Tribunal to file claims by auto-filling the required forms and advising on possible outcomes and claim amounts, prompting parties to settle earlier or consider mediation.

In India, the justice system is embarking on one of the largest digital rollouts in history, computerising almost 15,000 courts and creating 7 digital platforms to provide real time information on case status, court listings and judgments.

In British Columbia, they have set up an online dispute resolution platform that supports parties to negotiate online and settle their cases without going in front of judges.

There are many other examples. But we should be confident in the ambitious approach we are taking on digital justice.

Last year, with the judiciary, I set out a shared vision for a digital justice system that gives citizens the option to resolve their disputes entirely online. One that harnesses technology – like AI – to guide people in what they need to do and when. And crucially, that clearly sets out all their options, including mediation and arbitration, so that people don’t end up in court unnecessarily. Sometimes the best legal advice is that your issue is not really a legal issue at all.

Meanwhile, we are, I believe, the first jurisdiction to have established an Online Procedure Rule Committee to set standards and govern our digital justice system. This is a genuinely historic step forward – one of the most significant since the introduction of the CPR in 1999.

Of course, all this hasn’t come from a standing start: it builds on the progress we are making in Lawtech, a sector that has grown dramatically in the last three years. The UK has become a global hub for Lawtech and a haven for innovators – supported by LawtechUK, an industry-led programme set up by the Government in 2019.

In that time, it has:

Created a LawTech accelerator to nurture start-ups and support them to access the legal market.

Created a Regulatory Response Unit to make it easier for startups to navigate the complex landscape of legal regulation.

Developed a ground-breaking feasibility study for an online dispute resolution platform for SMEs and so much more…

And take quiet pride that today we are home to some 43 percent of all lawtech startups in Europe.

That is not a coincidence. Lawtech in the UK benefits from a technology talent pipeline, a competitive tax system, a liberal regulatory regime and (dare I say it) Government recognition of the importance of innovation.

And let us also take pride in the fact that we also have one of the most open legal markets anywhere in the world, where any foreign lawyer can practice foreign and international law. As I said to the legal professionals at the Bar Council of India’s Conference in Delhi, which I was delighted to be invited to last year, I said to them that any one of them in the audience could jump on the plane back to the UK and start practising Indian and international law in our country the very next day.

And in that context, is it any wonder that London is now home to more than 200 foreign law firms from over 40 different jurisdictions. I believe, it’s a model for the open, globalist, enterprising country we should inspire to be.

Politicians are pretty good by and large at setting out the ‘what’ - the statistics, the achievements and so on. But I think we spend less time talking about the ‘why’. Why does any of this matter? Why is it important to stay ahead?

First, straightforwardly, of course it’s about the economic benefit, we shouldn’t be squeamish talking about that, our legal services drive prosperity – generating billions for our economy each year, around £34 billion gross value added in 2022 alone. At the same time, annual demand for lawtech products and services in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £22 billion a year – and only likely to grow further, and that’s of course important for the public services that we cherish. 

Second, access to justice, so that citizens can vindicate their individual rights. Because a nation of laws must be, of course, one nation of laws – where legal remedies aren’t the preserve of those with the deepest pockets. Tech is our friend here, as we know from our work to digitise the courts system through our modernisation programme. More claims are being made digitally online, more quickly. And our new digital services – including for civil money and injury claims – have been used over 2 million times. That broadens access to justice.

Remember this as well. Many people in this room - people who have worked hard and focused on their practices, will also believe passionately in social mobility. When I was in practice at the Bar, I used to go in my wig and gown to tough inner London schools and do cross-examinations, do mock trials, and so on. And I remember one young man came with me to the Old Bailey, because I’d spotted that his cross examination was truly exceptional. He came to watch a trial and was absolutely transfixed by the whole thing. Five years later I was reminded by his school about him, and he’d won a place at Cambridge to read law. So, yours is a sector that can genuinely change lives.

Third, the rule of law – fundamental to our values as a nation. Keeping our justice system up-to-date means that the rule of law remains relevant as tech moves on. In simple terms, more people are able to use the law to vindicate their rights and to secure just outcomes. That strengthens the rule of law. And, because of our international standing, with litigants from around the world choosing England and Wales, I hope we can reasonably observe that it strengthens the international rule of law too.

That in turn strengthens our position and our voice in upholding the international rules-based order. Let me give you just a brief example. When I travelled recently to the United States, I met with Merrick Garland, US Attorney General, Lisa Monaco, Deputy Attorney General, and Samuel Alito, Supreme Court Justice. And which is the nation that the US turns to as a trusted friend as we grapple with difficult legal issues, such as how to manage billions in immobilised Russian assets - is there a legal route to go from freezing to seizing? Which is the nation with the expertise they very often turn to, and did so in that case? It’s the United Kingdom.

Finally, let me touch on AI. I’m not going to drill into the detail of each of these essays, but one core theme shines out. By and large our winners believed that AI is a good thing – that its promise outweighs its threats. That’s also the Governments position – so there’s the kiss of death for your collective credibility….!

Harnessing the power of AI is, of course, a big priority for Government and the PM – backed by a £900 million fund and plans for a world-leading AI research centre in Bristol, which will make sure the UK is securing its leadership position in AI development.

And when it comes to legal services, LawtechUK, along with the UK Jurisdiction Taskforce and the Law Commission, has and continues to bring together lawyers, investors, technologists, and other experts to explore how Generative AI is shaping the legal landscape – and how we can use it to open up access to justice. 

But as our essayists set out, if we’re to harness the benefits, we need to manage the risks. To gain public trust requires transparency, reliable data, and an understanding of how bias can accidentally be embedded – and how to prevent it, as well as protection against cyber security threats.

Again, the UK is playing a leading role with the PM convening a global AI safety summit last year. And we have signed an MoU with the United States, to work together to develop tests for the most advanced AI.

So, let me turn now to those finalists who entered this competition. My congratulations to you all. Your cases were powerfully and engagingly made, and it was a genuine pleasure to read them.

To produce such strong pieces of work, despite myriad demands on your time, says a great deal about your commitment to, and aptitude for, the law. You should all be very proud.

And if the standard of these essays is anything to go by, the future of our profession is bright. I look forward to seeing great things from you in the years ahead.

So, without further ado, let me announce our runners up. I’m going to ask you please to come up and collect your prizes – Jonathan Macarthy, Laura Wilson, and Jay Staker.

Next, our third prize winner is… Maximilian Mutkin

Second prize goes to… Jonathan Stelzer

And, finally, I’m delighted to announce our first prize winner…. Henrik Tiemroth.

And that’s your lot, thank you very much indeed.

From: Ministry of Justice and The Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP