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UK Government’s ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘playing politics’ rhetoric undermines the rule of law, say IBA and IBAHRI

Monday 23 November 2020

The International Bar Association (IBA) and International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemn the hostile comments made by the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and echoed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, regarding the work of lawyers. The comments attempted to ostracise legal professionals as ‘do-gooder, lefty lawyers’ for providing legal representation to migrants seeking asylum in the UK. Such an attack shows a disregard for the principles of international law guaranteeing the rights of refugees, and the fundamental right of every individual to legal representation. Ms Patel claims that the existing asylum system is ‘broken’ and that lawyers are defending migrants who have illegally entered the country with the help of criminal gangs. Further, the most recent comments of Immigration Minister Chris Philp, which condemned lawyers for last-minute challenges to the deportation of asylum seekers, display a dearth in understanding of the workings of the UK courts system. These types of comments form part of the government’s wider attack against the rule of law, as the IBA has previously raised in a series of webinars on the Internal Market Bill

IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto commented: ‘This year marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (UN Basic Principles) and the IBA Standards for Independence of the Legal Profession. We remind the United Kingdom of the UN Basic Principles’ obligation for governments, to “ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”. The IBA Standards also uphold that “no lawyer shall suffer or be threatened with penal, civil, administrative, economic or other sanctions, or harassment by reason of his or her having legitimately advised or represented any client or client’s cause”. We regret to see the UK, a nation once heralded for its commitment to the rule of law, regressing this commitment and chastising lawyers for simply carrying out their professional duties.’

 

The IBA and IBAHRI assert that language attempting to degrade lawyers cannot be taken lightly in the aftermath of direct attacks made against lawyers.

Recently, a man was charged with preparing an act of terrorism by searching Duncan Lewis Solicitors with the intention of holding an immigration solicitor hostage. His alleged motivation was his belief that the firm was delaying the removal of immigrants from the UK. This incident took place only days after the comments made by Ms Patel blaming lawyers for frustrating the deportation of immigrants, and a misleading article from The Mail on Sunday and Mail Online which reported that ‘taxpayers [are paying a] £55million bill for lawyers blocking deportation flights of Channel migrants’, referring to Duncan Lewis Solicitor’s work. 

On 21 October, the UK Court of Appeal deemed the policy of removing migrants without access to a lawyer beforehand unlawful. More than 800 former judges and senior legal figures, including three former justices of the UK Supreme Court, have since called for a public apology, citing concern over the personal safety and wellbeing of lawyers as a result of Ms Patel’s comments.

IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis stated: ‘The comments by senior UK government ministers exploit broader societal divisions by placing a politically charged label on lawyers. It is a thinly veiled attempt to discredit the important work done by the legal profession to protect human rights, including those of asylum seekers. The work of the legal profession to apply UK law and defend every citizen of the UK, should be praised rather than vilified. The UK’s strong global position is owing to its historic reputation for upholding the rule of law. In order to maintain this reputation, this rhetoric villainising the legal profession must end.’

IBAHRI Director Baroness Helena Kennedy QC added: ‘The shameless attacks on lawyers is part of wider strategy to undermine the rule of law. The effects of the significant cuts to legal aid introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012 have only intensified during the pandemic. There is a backlog of over 45,500 Crown Court cases that will take over four years to clear out, starting from long before the COVID-19 crisis. Further, in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto they promised to reassess Judicial Review post-Brexit, which would greatly reduce the checks and balances placed on the Government. These cuts are why the Justice system is “hamstrung”. Not the work of “lefty human rights lawyers”, as Priti Patel claims.’

The IBA and IBAHRI not only echo the calls for senior ministers to issue an unequivocal public apology to the legal profession, but to also make a genuine effort to support and fund the justice system. The UK government must again renew its commitment to the rule of law. Lawyers should not be immune to constructive criticism, but they must not be the subject of a dangerous state endorsed rhetoric.

ENDS

Notes to the Editor

  1. Watch the IBA webinars on the Internal Market Bill here:
    ibanet.org/Implications-of-the-Internal-Market-Bill and
    ibanet.org/International-Law-and-the-Internal-Market-Bill 
  2. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
  3. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), an autonomous and financially independent entity, works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

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