Commonwealth Law Conference: Equality before the law

|Speeches|Lord Judge

This meeting has taken place in South Africa. That is about the most obvious, and to the extent that anything obvious is daft, the daftest observation in this conference. But I want to emphasise the point from the outset. First, however, hasn’t it been a triumphant Conference? The triumph has had many different facets. We can pause to admire the hard work and wise decision-making of the organisers, the high quality of the speakers, the immense kindness of those who looked after us, the pleasantness of the facilities. The programme has been wonderful and we have been spoilt for choice about the different sessions to attend. All this should be acknowledged.

But at this stage of the conference I do not think there is any point in trying to point to individual items and highlight them. Well, perhaps there is one. And it has a resonance for each and every one of us, from whichever country we come. Never take the rule of law for granted. Never, ever. The best of constitutions can be subverted. The democratic process itself can, as it did with Hitler in Nazi Germany, bring an evil dictator to power. As a result unnumbered millions died – millions in concentration camps, millions fighting to rid the world of the wickedness he had spawned. It all stemmed from the subversion of the democratic process. Yesterday those brave lawyers from Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka reminded us of the need for eternal vigilance. We, as lawyers, have the trained eyes to see, and the trained lips to voice the alarm signals. We have a particular responsibility to be vigilant.

I have however tried to discern in my own mind what has made this conference so particularly special to me. What is it about this particular conference that has been so successful? I offer you very personal thoughts, and I offer them with respect. I do not intend to be controversial, and I certainly do not intend to cause any offence. But surely the starting point is that this conference has taken place here, in Cape Town, in South Africa.

It is easy to overlook its most obvious feature. This vast group of common lawyers, judges, advocates, academics, researchers, men and women of unimpeachable intellectual quality and professional integrity, has gathered together without reference to the colour of their skins, and we have shared our views and experiences. Perhaps most significantly of all, we have shared exactly the same spaces, sitting side by side in conference meetings, and enjoying our food at the same tables, men and women of all races, men and women of every skin colour.

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