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Speech at President’s Reception 2017

This is the speech given by the SLS President for 2016-17, Professor Imelda Maher, at the President’s Reception held at the Embassy of Ireland on 1 March 2017.

SLS President’s Reception 2017

The Embassy of Ireland 1 March 2017

Mr. Ambassador, distinguished guests, members of the judiciary, members of the Society, colleagues and friends,

I would like to thank the Ambassador for allowing this reception to be held in the Embassy – a first for the Society and a venue which reflects the close relationship between the legal traditions of Ireland and the UK.

Last weekend I went to an old Irish country churchyard.  There, there is the tombstone of Mr. Benedict Bunbury Dillon of Ballyquin House who is immortalised as a law student of the Queens Inns who died in September 1840.  The Greys Inns records show that Mr. Bunbury Dillon of Ballyquin House was indeed a student there and that he had come from Kings Inns – which unofficially through the early reign of Queen Victoria was sometimes known as Queens Inns.   Mr. Bunbury Dillon was equipping himself for legal practice not just in Dublin but also in London but somehow his ambition got mistranslated by his grieving family and the local stone mason to render him a student of the familiarly but inaccurately labelled, Queens Inns.  Thus, in this unfortunate young man’s death, both the proximity and complexity of the relationship between the jurisdictions of these islands is apparent.

The proximity of the two jurisdictions is reflected in their shared legal heritage of the common law. (And apologies to the Scots present as the Scottish legal order is omitted from my comments.  I think that in part reflects the fact that the legal heritage between Scotland and the two Irish jurisdictions is different and less intense with Irish lawyers like Mr. Bunbury Dillon not looking to qualify in Edinburgh).

The relationship between the legal orders is complex and – as Mr. Bunbury Dillon’s tombstone shows – is open to misunderstanding.  For me this can be seen in the much lauded common travel area between the UK and Ireland which, in principle, allows citizens resident on these islands to move freely between them.  The legal base for the area differs between the two jurisdictions.  For the UK, it has its origins in the 1948 British Nationality Act which stated that British law was to apply to Irish citizens in the same way as British subjects.  In Ireland, British citizens were exempted by statutory instrument from the Aliens Act 1935. In Irish ports and airports, there is no provision made for the CTA with Irish and UK citizens lining up with all other EU citizens entering the state unlike the position in the UK where random stops occur at special entry points.  Architecture can sometimes – dare I say it – trump law.  Brexit has served to bring to the fore what I think can be termed the somewhat inarticulate but nonetheless convenient messiness of the law and the relationship between the two jurisdictions.

This dual quality of complementarity and complexity is something with which the UK will become more acquainted with the passing of the Great Repeal Bill.  The Irish constitution dealt with inherited laws which carried over all existing laws into the Irish jurisdiction, although those laws did not carry a presumption of constitutionality.  The peeling back of inherited laws continues nearly 100 years on with the most recent spring clean of the Irish statute book removing laws as far back as the time of Henry VIII.  While the legal heritage between the UK and the EU is of a much shorter duration than that of Ireland and the UK, nonetheless there are (the European Parliament suggests)  over 20,000 pieces of legislation that bind the UK and EU together and which the UK will gradually need to consider and possibly repeal.  There is also the vexed question of whether and to what extent it will be necessary to mimic new laws coming from the EU – especially those relating to issues of trade, services and environment.

My concern with Brexit is that the impatient political discourse of the ‘hard exit’ seems at odds with what is being discussed by my colleagues in the Society and in law schools up and down the country – where the sheer enormity of the tedious task of repealing and replacing thousands of laws is being debated in the knowledge that rushed laws rarely do the job.

Mindful of the needs of the law, it is all the more important to ensure some consistency between this tedious necessity and the more exciting and excitable political discourse of Brexit.  A dissonance between political discourse and legal reality is bad news for the rule of law and the stability it brings to society.

A bulwark against this dissonance is of course the work of legal scholars – our members highlight the unpopular message that Brexit is neither straightforward nor easy.   There is much work to do.

Part of that work is determining what the newly crafted relationship will be between the four jurisdictions represented in the Society: for example the challenge of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, the common travel area and devising legal mechanisms that will facilitate trade.  In scoping scenarios and probing hypotheticals the expertise of scholars is critical – including the large number of Irish nationals and Irish alumni now working in British universities, some of whom I am very happy to see here tonight.  They have a particular insight to offer as to the nature of the future relationships between these jurisdictions.  They are – like their compatriots and fellow alumni at the bar and in the City the natural successors of Mr. Bunbury Dillon – who in turn would no doubt be amazed to see the very large numbers of English solicitors registering with the Irish Law Society in advance of Brexit.

It is the role of the Society to advance legal education.  It does this by assisting its members in many ways including, of course, the annual conference which will be held in Dublin for the first time in September this year. Do come.  The theme is The Diverse Unities of the Law and it is great to see some of the plenary speakers here tonight.  The Society is nothing without its members and in turn the Executive and Council ensure the vitality of the Society.  I want to pay tribute to my wonderful colleagues on Executive.  We are a large body – close to 3000 members – and the exec and Council serve the members well – simply getting on with the job ably assisted by Mrs Sally Thomson and Mrs. Sara Bladon.  Collegiality is alive and well in the Society.

Finally, one of the functions of the Society is to recognise intellectual rigour and imagination.  And tonight we do this by awarding two prizes.  The first is the SLS 2016 Best Poster Prize, kindly sponsored by Wiley.  It is jointly awarded to Mr. Jed Meers (York) for his poster entitled ‘Shifting the Place of Social Security: Social Rights under Austerity in the UK’ and to Ms. Rachel Pimm-Smith (Warwick) for her poster ‘Victorian Child Protection: Did Intervention Make Poor Children More Desirable Citizens?’.

The Society also awards a prize for the best paper submitted and presented at the conference.  The winner this year, seeing off some stiff competition, is Professor Maria Lee from UCL for her article: ‘Knowledge and Landscape in Wind Energy Planning’ published as the first article in the 2017 edition of our journal Legal Studies, the jewel in the Crown of the Society.  Warmest congratulations to you all and sincere thanks to the judges of both competitions.

Thank you to you all for your support of the Society and for joining us this evening.