President of CCBE James MacGuill SC: „We must be vigilant to avoid commoditisation of justice“

2023 01 12

Irish solicitor James MacGuill became the president of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) in January 2022. Now CCBE represents the bars and law societies of 45 countries and more than one million European lawyers. With the presidency of Mr. MacGuill, the organisation became more progressive and more empathetic, or maybe the times came harder with Russia‘s war in Ukraine, new technologies with new challenges, new and old threats for lawyers also – all these things demand to react expeditiously and the President of CCBE with the rest team, as we see, can manage this work smoothly. How? It‘s because the President has priceless experience. Or maybe optimism and a sense of humor help to deal with all questions? James MacGuill accepted our request for this interview and tells us about his approach to all challenges. He also gave us very frank answers about Russia‘s war in Ukraine, showing the leader is very close to all CCBE members in Europe.

Mr. President, the Lithuanian lawyers know you as a leader of CCBE, but our magazine is dedicated not only to lawyers, so we would like to paint your portrait here – to know you better. What is your specialization as a lawyer and why did you choose this direction? Why did you choose this profession?

My late father was a lawyer(solicitor) so naturally growing up, I was curious about his work. As I became more familiar with legal issues I  realised I would like to follow in his footsteps.

I qualified in 1986 and joined my father in practice in my hometown 80 km outside the Capital. There was very little specialisation on the part of solicitors outside the capital at that time and most firms were one or two person practices and undertook a general mix of litigation, property law and administration of the Estates. That delivery model still exists but there is a definite trend to concentrate either on litigation or transactions. Gradually I became drawn to public law, particularly criminal, constitutional and administrative law. My practice today is heavily directed in those areas.

And what did you find attractive and special about this specialization?

My colleagues and I enjoy the challenge of representing the citizen in dispute with the State for whatever reason.

You came through all different forms in your career, it seems like you are a persistent person and your good endeavor became great results. What are the main differences between leading the Irish Bar and now, when you are head of CCBE?

While it has changed considerably since I was President in 2008 the Irish Law Society at that time was both the primary regulator and representative body of the solicitor‘s profession. Today it no longer handles service complaints which are handled by the Legal Services Regularly Authority who also handle other policy matters. However, it still supervises financial compliance and representation.  The principal difference therefore between the Irish Law Society and the CCBE is that the CCBE is purely representational and does not have any regulatory function.

And you are still practicing. How do you manage to balance the functions of attorney at law, practicing, and your role as the President?

Balancing the demands of private practice and acting as President of the CCBE is certainly easier following the pandemic experience as we are all much more conversant with the use of technology to introduce efficiencies although there is no substitute for physical meetings. In reality, as President, you are the spokesman for the organisation drawing on the excellent work of the experts on our committees supported by our excellent team of legal advisors and administrative support. So while it is busy I am lucky to be part of excellent teams in my practice and CCBE.

Coming close to realities - I would like to ask more personally - Russia's war in Ukraine has had a great impact on many countries in the world. How do you see the situation?

The illegal invasion of Ukraine is an outrage and a gross violation of international law including humanitarian law and the Rome Statute. I was honored to visit Ukraine to express the solidarity of the CCBE to our colleagues there. In due course, those responsible will be held to account but only subject to the rule of law and with proper representation. In the meantime, I think Russia's permanent status on the UN Security Council is quite frankly a scandal.

You as personally and all CCBE stands with Ukraine, what was the support for colleagues from this Country?

I am pleased to say that the CCBE took immediate steps to assist our colleagues in Ukraine by denouncing the illegal invasion publicly; calling for support for our colleagues and Ukrainian people generally; supporting the displaced by organising panels of lawyers who could assist and represent them, providing material support in terms of shelter to the displaced colleagues and financial support; contributing to the development of sanctions and asset freezing measures, and encouraging colleagues throughout Europe to obtain first-hand accounts from those displaced who have witnessed war crimes and making that evidence available to the International Criminal Court.The Lithuanian delegation to the CCBE were vocal and dynamic in their support for these steps and unequivical in their condemnation of the invasion. Their solidarity is greatly appreciated by our colleagues in the Ukrainian National Bar Association.

You mentioned sanctions. How do you see the role of advocates when talking about sanctions, and new directions of economy/ energy? Do you think European states can stand together in this field?

European states simply must stand together and use sanctions as an effective way of restraining this illegal war. The inconsistency that accompanied the 2014 sanctions in terms of their application in different Member States have contributed to significant confusion and inefficiency. The recent measures must be applied consistently. As individual lawyers, we must raise consciousness among our colleagues as to what constitutes sanction-breaking so that unwitting colleagues are not used by unscrupulous persons to that end.

Talking about other issues and challenges, the Lithuanian Bar Association very much appreciate CCBE‘s support in 2019 when you expressed concern about the increased number of various initiatives in Lithuania that could hinder the implementation of the fundamental principles of the legal profession. What kind of challenges do you see for attorneys at law guarantees in other European countries? How to deal with it, for example in Poland, or Hungary?

There are a great number of challenges facing the legal profession including interference by governments as you have identified in Poland and Hungary. However elsewhere there is a continuing erosion of confidentiality, professional secrecy, and legal professional privilege. This can occur almost by accident for instance currently as part of well-meaning measures such as those dealing with asset freezing. The challenge for CCBE is to be vigilant at all times and to ensure that we identify such threats in time to deal with them.

In 2021 April European Council decided to start preparing the European Convention on the Lawyer's Profession, the purpose of which is to protect the basic guarantees and rights of lawyers. So how is going the preparation for this very important Convention?

The exercise on the preparation of the European Convention on the lawyer‘s profession is well underway. It is in the course of taking submissions, preparing texts, and holding regular meetings with national experts. The CCBE is monitoring all of these developments and is making detailed submissions under the leadership of our French colleague Lauren Pettiti. It is our belief that an instrument of this kind particularly if it is a binding instrument will underpin the importance of the legal profession and ensure that safeguards that are there to protect our clients will not be interfered with.

What do you think the Bar Associations of the EU should do to succeed in ensuring the Rule of Law?

I think the single biggest contribution that Bar Associations throughout the EU can make is to ensure that young colleagues qualifying is aware of the importance of the rule of law, access to justice, and the instruments that underpin these principles.

You are talking about the young generation. What would be your main advice for those who want to study law?

I personally regret that I took law as my primary degree aged between the ages of 17 and 20. I think it is preferable if the opportunity exists to do more general third level study first and then take up Law at a later Master's stage. That is the system in the United States and I believe there is much to commend it.  Many of my friends and colleagues that obtained other qualifications before coming to the law are in many ways better equipped to practice because of a broader outlook.

You are an unassuming person, you have a great experience, so, young people could follow your example. But do you find something risky or dangerous in this profession?

Two criminal law practitioners Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson from the North of Ireland both known personally to me were murdered because they were associated with those they represented by irresponsible elements including politicians and the security forces. This is a recurring danger worldwide and the CCBE is very active in speaking up on behalf of endangered lawyers and stressing that lawyers are independent as advocates.

Let‘s talk about the future. What impact Legaltech might have on the attorneys at law in the future? Do you think this profession will be still alive?

For too long it was assumed that lawyers were against technological progress. That is not true and the pandemic has illustrated as much. What we are concerned about is any substitution by artificial intelligence of the decision-making power that should rest with a human, independent, and experienced Judge. Algorithms when used in criminal justice in the US were shown to produce racially biased outcomes. This is where we must be vigilant to avoid commoditisation of justice.

So what you could wish for Lithuanian attorneys at law and all readers of this magazine?

Peace, prosperity, and success in sporting endeavors (except if they are playing an Irish team).

Thank you for your time.

Short biography

James MacGuill graduated in law from University College Cork in 1983 and was admitted to the roll of solicitors in 1986. He was admitted to the role of a solicitor in 1986 and has been in private practice ever since as a litigator with an emphasis on public law, especially criminal law and human rights. He subsequently gained a Diploma in Arbitration in 1991 and was appointed a Notary Public in 1996.

He served as president of the Law Society of Ireland in 2007/8 and has chaired a number of its committees. He joined the CCBE in 2008 and was head of the Irish delegation to the CCBE twice between 2012 and 2018. He chaired the CCBE’s criminal law committee from 2013 to 2019 before joining the CCBE’s presidency team. In 2020, Mr. MacGuill became one of the first Irish solicitors to be granted the title of senior counsel. CCBE President is the managing partner of MacGuill and Company, a practice of five solicitors in Louth.