Ethics and the Law

The study of ethics within the vocational professions has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years.  Several professions now, such as medicine, nursing, business, social work and education, include the study of ethics within their curriculum.  With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that the study of legal ethics in first degrees, within England and Wales, is still not compulsory.  In contrast, many common law jurisdictions (notably the US, Australia and Canada) now require law students to study legal ethics, as part of a first degree.

However, this is beginning to change.  Writing today in The Guardian Neil Rose, a legal journalist and editor, highlights the growing recognition, within the legal profession, that more needs to be done to ensure that its practitioners are clear of the ethical codes they are required to maintain.  The need for such training becomes apparent if one considers that The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) has an ethics helpline, which receives some 5,000 calls a month.  Moreover, this issue has become even more pressing due to the fact that the legal profession’s own rulebook will be changed radically within the next eight months.  In particular, there will be changes in regulation in England and Wales, requiring solicitors to exercise wider discretion in ethical decision making.  For these reasons the SRA is considering compulsory ethics training for all solicitors, as part of their ongoing training.

Back in March 2009 The Law Society published a paper, co-authored by the academics Kim Economides and Justine Rogers, which analyzed the place of ethics in the legal education and training system of England and Wales.  The Report recommended that the Law Society, “take the lead and encourage the SRA to […] make awareness of and commitment to legal values, and the moral context of the law, mandatory in undergraduate law degrees.”  The Economides and Rogers report made a series of other recommendations, such as requiring future lawyers taking some form of Hippocratic Oath, introducing an ethics assessment into trainee appraisals and consideration of requiring all law firms to have ethics officers or an ethics committee.

In the Law Society’s follow up report published recently, drawn up by Andrew Boon of the Centre for Legal Profession and Legal Services at Westminster University, it was recommended that:

An obvious way to ensure that ethics features in the initial stage is to include it in the ‘Seven Foundations of Legal Knowledge’, which are set out in the joint statement agreed between the Law Society, the Bar and the academy as the core of subjects deemed essential study for students seeking qualifying law degree status and smooth progress to vocational courses.

Professor Broon’s hope is that such training will, amongst other things, “promote understanding of the importance of values, including justice, honesty, integrity, critical self-reflection and respect for others“, as well as to, “stimulate reflection on the ethical challenges of practice and lay a foundation for ethical behaviour”.

Related Articles:

Objectivity in Law

By Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco, University of Birmingham

(Vol. 5, Issue 3, March 2010)

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The Duty to Obey the Law

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(Vol. 1, Issue 6, November 2006)

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Moral Luck and the Law

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(Vol. 4, Issue 6, December 2009)

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Psychopathy and Responsibility Theory

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