This month marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of Sir David Clementi’s final report on the regulatory framework for legal services in England & Wales. How time flies! The report is still a good read, and a helpful reminder of what needed to change – and why.
The report laid the foundations for the Legal Services Act 2007 (even though the Act went further on alternative business structures than Sir David was willing to recommend). Its principal aims can be summarised as:
- creating the Legal Services Board and establishing the principle of regulation that is independent from professional representation
- improving the way in which – and the speed with which – complaints against legal services providers are handled, including setting up the Office for Legal Complaints and the Legal Ombudsman
- liberalising the business structures through which lawyers can operate by permitting ownership and investment by individuals who have not qualified as lawyers, and allowing legal businesses access to external capital.
All of these primary objectives have been achieved – more or less. So what now?
Yesterday, I gave a speech at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum about the future for legal services regulation. Part of the question and answer session was reported (identically) by both Solicitors Journal and Managing Partner under the headline ‘Lawyers could have prevented the financial crisis, suggests Stephen Mayson’. I did not say this, did not intend to say it, and the inference (based on what I did say) is completely false. Despite my protestations, neither magazine has so far seen fit to change their story. So here is my response.
This issue – or confusion of issues – has been troubling me for some time. Let me start with three declarations. First, I used to be a tax lawyer. Second, for me, the obligation to pay tax can ultimately only be a legal one, and not a matter of morals. Third, I’m not in favour of complex, elaborate, or artificial, tax avoidance schemes.
“If we truly believe in the rule of law, there can be no residual notion of a moral obligation to pay tax.”
First, some basics. The purpose of taxation is to finance the State. Indeed, the origins of tax lie in raising money to finance wars. (As an aside, because of the unwillingness of earlier generations to contemplate a permanent state of war, even today income tax is only an annual measure which has to be confirmed and reimposed by Parliament every year, hence the need for an annual Finance Act. So what irony, then, that although we raise more than enough money each year through taxation to finance our defence, governments of all persuasions in recent years have so cut back on defence funding in their allocation of tax revenues raised that our ability to defend ourselves effectively must now be questionable.)