Muted start to new legal year with ceremony at Westminster Abbey

Senior judges ushered in the start of the new legal year at Westminster Abbey in a more muted ceremony than usual amid coronavirus restrictions.

Around 100 judges, dignitaries and guests attended the service on Thursday, including the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett and Supreme Court President Lord Reed.

Attorney General Suella Braverman and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick were also among the guests.

Opening of the Legal Year at Westminster Abbey
Opening of the Legal Year at Westminster Abbey

The service is held at the abbey each year on October 1 to mark the opening of the legal year.

There are usually about 1,000 people at the service, including judges from across England and Wales – who process into and out of the Abbey in full ceremonial robes and wigs, attended by their clerks.

However, with restrictions to halt the spread of Covid-19 still in place, this year’s service saw judges wear formal dress, rather than robes, and masks were worn throughout.

The only singing allowed was that of the Westminster Abbey Choir, throughout which the congregation stood or sat in silence.

Opening of the Legal Year at Westminster Abbey
Opening of the Legal Year at Westminster Abbey

Reverend Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster, who led the service, gave a sermon which drew on his own father’s career as a solicitor, the notion of justice as a “shelter” from the wind, and the first reading from the book of Exodus, which was read by Mr Buckland earlier in the service.

Rev Hoyle said the reading describes the escape of the Israeli people from Egypt and includes the passage: “You shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.”

He spoke of the task of judges as one of “ceaseless vigilance”, adding: “We need you more than ever. Those winds are blowing hard and cold.

“We are, I think, traipsing back into Egypt, into deeper inequalities.”

Rev Hoyle also raised the question of how to “communicate a better idea of justice… in a community that seems to me to be increasingly hostile and… ill-informed”.