Interview: Law Society of England and Wales President Lubna Shuja on the Greatest Threats to the Rule of Law (Part 2 of 3) Features
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Interview: Law Society of England and Wales President Lubna Shuja on the Greatest Threats to the Rule of Law (Part 2 of 3)

As the first Asian, first Muslim, and seventh woman to serve at the helm of the Law Society of England and Wales, Lubna Shuja is devoted to advancing the rule of law. “I will continue to uphold the rule of law, scrutinise changes in legislation and make sure that – regardless of their means, background or position in society – those who need it can access a solicitor,” she said in a quote featured prominently on the society’s website. In its 200-year history, the Law Society has undergone enormous change. In fact, women weren’t even authorized to work as solicitors for about the first century of the existence of the organization, which — in addition to advancing the rule of law and human rights, offers an array of professional services for solicitors.

JURIST UK Senior Editor James Joseph conducted an interview with Shuja to learn more about her work, the organsation’s role in advancing rule of law issues, and more. The interview will be published in three parts, of which this is the second.

JURIST: In your view, what are the most pivotal challenges facing the rule of law in the UK today?

Shuja:  At the moment here in England and Wales, we have got some real issues with the kind of rhetoric that the government is using, and the way that they are describing lawyers, particularly in the context of immigration lawyers and the Illegal Migration Act. There have been terms that have been used to describe lawyers which are quite derogatory, implying that lawyers are trying to stop the government from implementing policy, which is not the case at all. So I think there are some real serious rule of law issues going on here without a doubt. And you know, where you start to undermine the legal profession which is what we saw with Brexit. We saw that big headline in one of the media tabloids, describing judges as “enemies of the people.”

When you start making comments like that, undermining the role of the independent judiciary, the independent legal profession, you are undermining the rule of law, you’re undermining trust in our judiciary, trust in the legal profession, trust in the justice system, because people then start to doubt the legitimacy of its decision making, and they lose confidence in the system. It is absolutely the role of the judiciary and lawyers to hold the government to account.

We are all subject to the rule of law. We are all required to abide by the law, no matter who we are, where we are from, or what our background is; the role of lawyers and judges is to make sure that [the rule of law] is upheld. When you start hearing rhetoric from the government pushing back on that, describing judges as enemies of the people describing lawyers, as activist lawyers or lefty lawyers, all this awful language that they use. They are conflating the role that those professionals have with the cases that they are dealing with and that is absolutely wrong. And that absolutely does undermine the rule of law. When you start to undermine the rule of law nationally, it impacts internationally, because other countries, if they see what’s going on here, they will lose confidence in our justice system. So it’s really important that we do keep it in check.

[In the year since I became president of the Law Society, we have conducted a great deal of member outreach to assess core legal issues and concerns.] One of the big successes of this year was a trip I took to India, which for many, many years has been a closed legal market. We know we’ve got a lot of members across England and Wales that have been keen to start doing work in India. When I came back from India and while I was in India, I talked to the Bar Council of India to persuade them it would benefit them to open up their legal market. I was explaining how London is an open legal market in an anybody from anywhere in the world can come and practice here. Those who qualified abroad just can’t do reserve activity unless they’re qualified here. Three days after I came back from India, they announced that they were opening up an illegal market- so that was a fantastic success. And that’s a new market that we’ve been able to open up for members.

I have also been visiting members all over England and Wales. This is important because it allows me to hear directly from them about their concerns and what the Law Society can do to help them. I have been to Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth.

JURIST: Looking ahead, what challenges do you anticipate AI could pose for the rule of law? 

Shuja: This is such a hot topic at the moment. Wherever I go and whoever I’m speaking with, members all up and down England and Wales and internationally are talking about AI. AI is right at the top of the agenda. I think the key thing is AI is here to say: I think we need to embrace it. I think it has a place and it’s just that it’s not regulated at the moment. So I’d like to see that there is some kind of regulation of the use of it. I think it’s very good to use a kind of process driven situations you know, so you can use it I mean it is being used already by many, many law firms. I don’t think it can ever replace human interaction though, and you cannot use AI to replace seeing witnesses in court and judging their demeanour, judging how they give their answers judging how they behave. You can’t use AI I think to be making decisions, life changing decisions on cases about people, but I think it does have a place and could potentially be used in very, very simple procedural situations where you’re looking at time limits or extended time or that kind of thing where there are very clear rules and guidelines around what criteria needs to be met and there’s no discretion really that’s used

But, it’s here to stay I think it’s going to get better and better. We talk a lot certainly I’ve heard a lot of talk about Chat GPT, in-fact our librarians here at the Law Society told me a story not long ago, they received so they our library will look up cases for members can contact them and say “please can you find such and such a case for me?” So they got a request from a member asking them to look up a case for them and he had a citation and everything. They couldn’t find it, and it turned out to be AI generated.

I was just recently talking to some American lawyers. And it turned out just recently that in New York there was some attorneys who have made submissions to a judge based entirely on what had come through on chat GPT the judge realised that I think it was a case that they had referred to was not correct. It didn’t exist it was completely wrong. … AI absolutely has a role, but it’s the humans who we are responsible for the accuracy of it. We have to check the accuracy of whatever we’re using, because at the end of the day, if something goes wrong, if [an AI chatbot] gives you information that is not correct, it’s your neck on the line.

You also have to be very careful to abide by client confidentiality regulations and you cannot start placing specifics into AI; otherwise you’re potentially going to get yourself into trouble for breaching confidentiality and client privilege.