Last month I voiced concerns over the lack of appreciation in government (central and local) of the role of lawyers in defending individuals’ rights and challenging abuses of power. What has happened since is worse.
At that point the Home Office had withdrawn following protests a video referring to “activist lawyers” intervening on behalf of people it wished to deport, which its permanent secretary accepted should not have been so expressed.
Regrettably, indeed alarmingly, UK ministers are showing themselves impervious to adding to their understanding of the importance of the law and lawyers in a pluralistic society. For the second time in a few weeks, our own Law Society, like its English & Welsh counterpart and the Dean of Faculty, has felt moved to protest, this time at the “inflammatory language” of the Home Secretary, repeated by the Prime Minister, in party conference speeches. And while the former’s reference to “lefty lawyers” was in the relatively narrow context of asylum, the Prime Minister chose the same phrase to cast aspersions indiscriminately at criminal defenders.
I make no apology for returning to the subject, which is of critical importance. Likewise, to her credit, our President, via Twitter, said she would take a stand “AGAIN and AGAIN as necessary” while she holds office.
Those who doubt the need to do so should consider the 7 October news item on the website of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, the largest provider of civil legal aid services (including much immigration work) in England & Wales. In the wake of such ministerial agitation, and tabloid coverage of its headline earnings – from many thousands of cases over three years – it reports: “We are now seeing our lawyers experience abusive behaviour and receive abhorrent and threatening messages online daily for simply trying to do their job and be a voice for the most vulnerable: victims of torture, victims of trafficking and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. This has to stop.”
As if that were not enough, the Government is now quite openly putting itself in conflict with the rule of law, international and domestic, through its UK Internal Market Bill – internationally through its provisions purporting to override the EU Withdrawal Agreement, concluded by the same Government less than a year ago, and domestically through its attempt to exclude any form of review of potentially far reaching orders made under its powers. The Advocate General for Scotland, at least, felt himself unable to remain in office in consequence; the position of others still in post is difficult to defend.
My conclusion last month, predicting a need for constant vigilance, and readiness to stand up for those who most need our help, has now to be restated on a broader basis and at a more fundamental level. Our voices must be heard loudly and clearly.