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Speech by the Lord Chief Justice: Law Reform Now in 21st Century Britain – Brexit and Beyond


I have taken as the first part of the title of this lecture words with which Lord Scarman would have been very familiar: Law Reform Now – the three words which formed the title of the Gerald Gardiner and Andrew Martin book which contained their blueprint for what would become the Law Commission. As Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC, in the course of tracing the origins and huge success of the Law Commission in his 2015 Scarman Lecture, recalled, it started with a proposition; one they took to be axiomatic: “. . . that much of our English law is out of date, and some of it shockingly so.” They were not wrong.

The problem highlighted was that both common law and statute law needed a fundamental overhaul, which was a consequence of their historic and incremental development. Developments over the centuries had not, with some very notable exceptions, been systematised or rationalised. Inconsistencies had arisen, and had been left uncorrected. Obsolete laws remained on the statute book. Although there had been much activity during the zeal of Victorian era (when, for example, the law of marine insurance was codified and much of the criminal law and procedure was shorn of its brutal past), there had been no widespread or systematic continuation of that work. The work of the Law Revision Committee, established in 1934, and its successor the Law Reform Committee, established in 1952, had seen notable achievements; for example, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act which updated many out-of-date principles and provisions was the result of the first report of the Law Revision Committee. The Committee was established on 10 January 1934; its first report was dated 17 March 1934 and the Act giving effect to it received the Royal Assent on 25 July 1934. However, these Committees had many limitations, such as lack of Parliamentary time and a reluctance to look at the law of other states. Furthermore, as many of us know, committees that meet at 4.30 pm have their obvious disadvantages. There was no Committee for the reform of the Criminal Law until 1959.


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