The International Bar Association has added its weight to the chorus of criticism of Home Secretary Priti Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson over their comments regarding the work of lawyers.
It joins the UK legal professional bodies in condemning descriptions of legal professionals as "do-gooder, lefty lawyers" for providing legal representation to migrants seeking asylum in the UK. However the attacks were renewed in the last few days by Immigration Minister Chris Philp, who condemned lawyers for last-minute challenges to the deportation of asylum seekers.
The IBA said Mr Philp's remarks displayed "a dearth in understanding of the workings of the UK courts system", and showed a disregard for the principles of international law guaranteeing the rights of refugees, and the fundamental right of every individual to legal representation.
It added that Ms Patel's claim that lawyers are defending migrants who have illegally entered the country with the help of criminal gangs, and similar 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 Bernadres 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."
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."
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, director of the IBA's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), added: "The shameless attacks on lawyers are part of a wider strategy to undermine the rule of law." Referring to cuts in legal aid, the growing backlog of Crown Court cases and the Government's aim to reduce the checks and balances provided by judicial review, she added: "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 said they echoed 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", they concluded.