UK government ministers condemned for anti-lawyer rhetoric

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 4 February 2021

UK government ministers face increasing condemnation for verbal attacks on the legal profession in the aftermath of an alleged terrorism incident at a London firm.

In early September 2020, a member of the public allegedly threatened to kill a lawyer at a law firm’s office in Harrow. He has been charged with preparing terrorist acts, among other charges that include actual bodily harm, making a threat to kill, and a racially-aggravated public order offence. At the charging hearing, prosecutors alleged the motivation was connected to ‘the firm’s involvement in preventing the government from deporting people’. The man charged has yet to enter a plea.

Days before the incident, Home Secretary Priti Patel had tweeted to complain that Home Office ‘removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers’, despite the Home Office being condemned for a video using the same language only days earlier. The Law Society of England and Wales had criticised the ‘dangerous and misleading’ video that claimed government attempts to remove ‘migrants with no right to remain in the UK’ were blocked by ‘activist lawyers’ delaying and disrupting returns by ‘abus[ing]’ return regulations.

Home Secretary Priti Patel attends a Cabinet meeting of senior government ministers in London, 1 September 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool

The video was removed from circulation and replaced with one that does not reference ‘activist lawyers’, but the Home Secretary continues to use the phrase.

Philip Rodney, former Member of the IBA Senior Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board, tells Global Insight that he finds it ‘breath-taking that a government channel should seek to disparage as “activists” lawyers who work within the limits of the law to uphold the rights of those whom they represent. The ability to scrutinise executive powers and protect the interests of our clients is an essential part of the rule of law’.

He suggests that government attacks on lawyers, though alarmingly common in autocratic countries around the world, are unprecedented in the United Kingdom: ‘I can’t recall in more than 40 years of practice seeing that sort of language being used by government in an attempt to discredit lawyers who are just doing their jobs’.

Although concerns were raised about the connection between ministers’ language and the incident in the aftermath of the alleged attack, ministers have continued to politicise the work of lawyers representing asylum seekers.

I can’t recall in more than 40 years of practice seeing that sort of language being used by government in an attempt to discredit lawyers who are just doing their jobs

Philip Rodney
Former Member of the IBA Senior Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board

At the Conservative Party Conference in early October, the Home Secretary gave a speech in which she denounced ‘lefty lawyers’ working within the ‘fundamentally broken’ asylum system, and was supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said the criminal justice system is ‘being hamstrung […] by lefty human rights lawyers’.

Other government figures have also echoed the Home Secretary’s rhetoric, including Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice Chris Philp, who accused lawyers of ‘playing politics’ in a leaked letter to another Member of Parliament.

Several law firms have since revealed security concerns. At a UK Home Affairs Committee meeting in November, the Committee was told law firms working on immigration cases have received an increasing amount of serious threats and abuse from the public, and have subsequently bolstered their security, including closing their offices when court judgments favour asylum seekers.

Speaking to the Committee, Michelle Knorr, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, described the Home Secretary’s comments as a ‘propaganda campaign’ that is ‘dangerous and depressing’.

The Home Office declined to respond to Global Insight’s questions regarding an alleged connection between ministers’ language and the alleged attack on the law firm, and other firms’ security concerns. It also declined to comment on whether ministers had committed to changing their language.

Representatives of the legal profession have condemned ministers’ language from the outset, particularly following the alleged attack. In late October, more than 800 legal professionals and former judges signed a letter accusing the government of ‘hostility’ towards lawyers representing asylum seekers. The letter called for the ministers to apologise for attacks that ‘endanger not only the personal safety of lawyers and others working for the justice system, as has recently been vividly seen; they undermine the rule of law, which ministers and lawyers alike are duty-bound to uphold’.

In response, a government spokesperson said in a statement that ‘The government rejects the underlying insinuation in this letter and is clear any form of violence is unacceptable. Lawyers play an important role in upholding the law and ensuring people have access to justice. They are however not immune from criticism.’

Lawyers in the field tell Global Insight it is ‘astounding’ that not only did government ministers and the media not cease the use of inflammatory language once they became aware of the alleged attack, but that they doubled down on it. There is a sense of dread, they say, not only of physical attack but of how the Home Office and the press will respond to their work.

Some lawyers are calling for an independent inquiry or other investigation into the government’s approach to the legal profession.

In a statement from the International Bar Association (IBA) and its Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) in November, then IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto commented ‘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 statement argues that constructive criticism is acceptable, but that ministers’ comments constitute a ‘dangerous state-endorsed rhetoric’, which is ‘part of the government’s wider attack against the rule of law’.

IBAHRI’s Director Baroness Helena Kennedy highlights legal aid cuts, a backlog of Crown Court cases that began before the Covid-19 crisis, and the government’s commitment to reassessing judicial review post-Brexit, which she says would ‘greatly reduce the checks and balances placed on the government’. She adds, ‘These cuts are why the justice system is “hamstrung”.’

Jamie Potter, Joint Head of the Public Law and Human Rights team at Bindmans, spoke to Global Insight about the government’s attitude to challenges through judicial reviews. ‘If they’re attacking us, it’s because what we’re doing is working,’ he says. ‘So we can’t really do anything but keep going. We can’t let them off the hook’.