Legal Twitterati outrage over Home Office’s ‘activist lawyer’ tweet
The Secret Barrister changed their handle to ‘The Secret Activist Lawyer (AKA Barrister)’ in response
Lawyers have hit out at the Home Office after it tweeted a short video in which it accused “activist lawyers” of delaying and disrupting the return of migrants to their home countries.
The 21-second clip, posted yesterday evening by the Home Office on Twitter, begins:
“We are working to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK, but current return regulations are rigid and open to abuse… allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns.”
It continues: “Soon we will no longer be bound by EU laws and can negotiate our own return arrangements.”
Small boat crossings are totally unnecessary and we continue to return migrants with no right to be in the UK.
Another flight left today with more planned in the coming weeks. pic.twitter.com/RCnLlqNGVM
— Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) August 26, 2020
Dan Sohege, not a lawyer, but a human rights advocate specialising in international refugee law, spotted the short clip and wrote: “It’s incredible that the Home Office can get so much wrong, and so offensively, in one short tweet.”
The Secret Barrister changed their Twitter handle to “The Secret Activist Lawyer (AKA Barrister)” in response. The anonymous blogger and author re-tweeted Sohege’s thread (worth a read to understand the core issues), and tweeted:
“Civil servants are now being enlisted to spread Trump-like propaganda denigrating ‘activist lawyers’ who ensure the Home Secretary follows our democratically enacted laws.”
“Bad enough for ministers to talk about ‘activist lawyers’ but next level politicisation for civil servants at the Home Office to put it on an official departmental channel,” wrote Colin Yeo, immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers, adding: “The authoritarian anti-law agenda has moved on from ‘enemy of the people’ judges to ‘activist lawyers’. We stood with the judges, for whatever good that did. Will they just let us swing?”
Other Twitter users described the video as “worrying”, “disgraceful” and its use of warlike graphics as “chilling” and “propaganda”. One lawyer questioned “what is an activist lawyer anyway?”, adding, “I know I wouldn’t want a passive one!”.
Another user thought the video must be a parody. “Difficult to apply the usual approach to trolls when the troll is the official account of a government department,” wrote Charles Bishop, legal and parliamentary officer at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association.
Jan Doerfel, a sole practitioner barrister advising on matters of asylum, immigration and human rights law, provided some clarity:
1. Judges are not enemies of the people if scrutinising Govt decisions
2. Govt decisions are not automatically lawful
3. Lawyers are not activists for doing their job
4. Lawyers don't stop returns/removals, Court orders do
5. Complying with a Court order isn't disruption or delay
— Jan Doerfel Chambers (@ChambersofJD) August 27, 2020
Issues around immigration have magnified in recent weeks as border closures caused by COVID-19 leave asylum seekers little choice but to make small boat crossings to try and reach the UK.
In a statement today the Law Society condemned the Home Office video, describing it as an “attack” on the integrity of the legal profession undermining the rule of law. “Solicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by parliament. To describe lawyers who are upholding the law as ‘activist lawyers’ is misleading and dangerous,” said Law Society president Simon Davis.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.