Feature

5 times the Johnson government complained about ‘lefty lawyers’

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Lawyer-bashing long a staple of No.10 rhetoric

The legal profession has pushed back strongly after the Johnson government criticised the work of lawyers.

Wait, haven’t we heard this one before?

Last night’s Bar Council and Law Society statement calling on the PM to “stop attacks on legal professionals” helping refugees fight removal to Rwanda seems to have been issued more in hope than expectation. The cycle of lawyer-bashing followed by condemnation is pretty familiar.

1. ‘Activist lawyers’

In September 2020, stung by criticism of her department’s inability to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel by boat, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed the problem was that “removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers”. A Bar Council tweet hitting back went viral.

A few days later, immigration law firm Duncan Lewis was attacked by an alleged right-wing extremist. Cavan Medlock, from Harrow in London, allegedly blamed lawyers at the firm for preventing the removal of immigrants from the UK, the Guardian reported at the time.

Medlock pleaded guilty to four offences including “threatening the receptionist with a knife“. He denies planning to kill a senior solicitor at the firm; a trial is reportedly listed for next month.

2. ‘Lefty human rights lawyers’

Johnson soon waded in, adopting Patel’s criticism of immigration lawyers to take aim at their colleagues in criminal. Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in October 2020, the PM said that the criminal justice system was being “hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless and rightly call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders”.

The Law Society of England and Wales called his speech “deeply concerning”; the Bar Council went for “shocking and troubling”.

3. ‘Left-wing criminal justice lawyers’

The PM returned to this theme a year later, telling LBC’s Nick Ferrari:

“When you look at Labour, you see a party that voted consistently against tougher sentences for serious sexual violent offenders. The Labour opposition has consistently taken the side of, I’m afraid, left-wing criminal justice lawyers against, I believe, the interests of the public.”

Roddy Dunlop QC, head of the Scottish bar, said: “These attacks on the profession must stop.”

4. ‘Liberal left lawyers’

The government has always known that its plan to give asylum seekers a one-way ticket to Rwanda would be both politically and legally controversial. The agreement signed with the Rwandan government even mentions adverse court decisions. Speaking during the local election campaign earlier this year, Johnson declared that the inevitable legal challenges were ideologically motivated: “yes, of course there are going to be legal eagles, liberal left lawyers who will try to make this difficult.”

This time, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce replied: “It is misleading and dangerous for the prime minister to name-call lawyers who are doing their job and upholding the law.”

5. ‘Abetting the work of the criminal gangs’

Which brings us to this week, when the first planned flight to Rwanda was halted by the courts. Supreme Court President Lord Reed noted in one such case: “the appellant’s lawyers were performing their proper function of ensuring that their clients are not subjected to unlawful treatment at the hands of the Government.”

Johnson invited cameras into the Cabinet room to complain that the Rwanda plan was “under a huge amount of attack, not least from lawyers who are finding ways to unpick it”.

He quickly added: “I love lawyers, many of the people around this table are lawyers.”

But he went on to say that those opposed to the Rwanda policy were “abetting the work of the criminal gangs” involved in taking people across the Channel. Dunlop QC said that this “has unsurprisingly been widely understood as referring to the legal profession”, and (again) called for such attacks to stop.

In a joint statement, “the Bar Council and Law Society of England and Wales together call on the Prime Minister to stop attacks on legal professionals who are simply doing their jobs”.

Don’t hold your breath.

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10 Comments

Paul

He is such a vile man. The same extends to others in his party, and those who vote for it.

(42)(26)

Hackaforte

Only fair to point out that Labour have form here too – David Blunkett and Charles Clarke used to get quite vehement about the judiciary and legal profession when JRs didn’t go their way, usually (as always) about immigration. Once he’d returned to the backbenches, Blunkett had the cheek to moan about some judges letting Afghan nationals into the country – under rules he himself implemented when Home Secretary.

I don’t recall either of them making any reference to said lawyers’ presumed political leanings, though.

(19)(3)

FFS

We live in a country where people are free to voice their opinions.

I appreciate that lawyers may feel ostracised, insecure and self-conscious everywhere from dinner parties to their local pub.

But they don’t in fact have a right to dictate what others may or may not say about them behind their backs.

(13)(19)

Realist

There are legitimate reasons to deprecate the conflation of lawyers with their clients, but there are also reasonable grounds for criticising the de facto open border policy espoused by many left wing lawyers, including nearly all immigration lawyers.

There are reasonable arguments that (1) Parliament has delegated too much power to the courts; and (2) Strasbourg in particular has gone off on a frolic of its own, contriving ‘left wing law’ which has not undergone proper democratic scrutiny. Those of a left-wing inclination will disagree, but there are real issues about (a) judicial review being used to conduct ‘politics via the court room’ by zealots unable to support their position at the ballot box; (b) the concept of non-refoulement; and (c) Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“Article 8”). It is perfectly legitimate to believe that English and Strasbourg judicial positions are both the proper ones, and that any adverse consequences are an acceptable price to pay, but it is dishonest to ignore the fact that many people disagree. Specifically:

– Judicial review. Judicial review is routinely used to defeat the clearly-supported intent of the electorate. Deportation appeals by foreign criminals are an excellent example. I’m familiar with the predictable responses about tyranny, executive power, etc. but it is a reasonable position (reasonable, not universally shared) that the UK ought to be able to efficiently and effectively dispose of foreign criminals without interference from legal aid-funded activists milking increasingly angry taxpayers.

– Non-refoulement. This is the principle that countries cannot return people to potentially dangerous countries. There are many potentially dangerous countries. This doctrine means that dangerous people who force or trick their way into the UK can not be returned to their country of origin if they can persuade a court that on the balance of probabilities there is a threat to them in that home country. Inevitably, migrants are tutored to contrive excuses to withstand judicial scrutiny: I remember a BBC journalist being asked by someone in Sangatte whether it would be better to pretend to have been oppressed back in Africa for Christianity or for being gay. They’re both unfalsifiable, so such tactics work.

– Article 8. Both criminals and other terrorist suspects’ own Article 8 ‘right to a family life’ have prevented deportation in the past, and also that of their families – i.e. dangerous convicted criminals have been able to remain in the UK because their deportation would have adversely impacted their children. (The obvious answer would be to deport the entire family, but…)

– Social cohesion/economic impact/terrorism. Social cohesion and economic impacts are obvious, but terrorism is also a problem. The above stratagems apply equally to those who would do us harm. Since we can’t expel them, the UK population is left either paying a small fortune for 24/7/365 Security Service surveillance teams to monitor individuals, or – as there are thousands of such, usually [redacted religion], threats – it leaves them unmonitored and potentially lethal.

I’ve focused on immigration, as this area provides the easiest examples. All of the above issues however are political ones on which reasonable people can differ. Thomas Hobbes’ description of reality in “Leviathan” in 1651 remains true: in much of the world, people’s lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. We can’t change that, and we are not obliged to take in anyone who demands entry, simply because they came from somewhere unpleasant. How many, if any, we accept, and how we deal with them, are issues which *voters* ought to decide, not left-wing pressure groups. That is demonstrably not the case at present. Those on the left should be more sympathetic to this argument, as it loses their side votes, and allows the plainly incompetent Tories to triumph.

We survived well enough in the past, before the overreach of judicial review and before the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the Convention into domestic law, with enforcement at Strasbourg available in extremis. While I broadly prefer the status quo after the Act was implemented in 2000, I would be comfortable if we amended all of the areas above to limit their application solely to second generation UK citizens. This would prevent it being abused by non-nationals and recent arrivals.

Plainly, this is not a view held by the left, and it would also require very clear Parliamentary drafting and derogation or withdrawal from both the ECHR and Refugee Convention. But to simply argue there is one correct view, and that those who diverge from it are dumb populists, as the left usually does, paints an unfair picture of critics’ positions – and is simply bad politics.

Re. the predictable intervention of the courts into the Rwanda plan, I said to friends ages ago that we would need to withdraw from the ECHR to regain UK autonomy, and Lord Sumption alluded to this almost a decade ago: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/nov/28/european-court-of-human-rights (the link in that story to his speech is broken. It’s now at https://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-131120.pdf).

Finally, I would respectfully submit that any lawyers who work in the area of so-called “human rights” are clearly biased. Not because they pay their mortgages by extracting money from taxpayers for such work (though that is also true), but simply because it is axiomatic that they are on the left of the political spectrum. Those of us who are on the right (and who instead share the views of, e.g. Jonathan Sumption and the late Keith Joseph), specialised in commercial and chancery work. That doesn’t give ‘human rights’ lawyers a stronger claim to standing than us – or the average bloke on the street: quite the contrary. One can confidently predict human rights lawyers’ views in advance, regardless of the merits of reform.

(18)(7)

Anon

Too long

(29)(5)

Political Nomad

Did you want pictures?

Here’s an idea: grow up, read what is being said and maybe, just maybe you’ll actually learn something …

(7)(7)

Anon

Ideally yes pictures would be good. Better than this turgid self congratulatory nonsense.

Stephen Baister

Lefty lawyer

Perhaps for you, but if it is I hope you’re not practising law, which does occasionally require reading long documents. I disagree with Realist, but he or she argues a coherent position with skill and thought. I respect that, even if you don’t.

(0)(0)

Sword of truth

Yes, but a society based on the rule of law requires lawyers. The issue is the hypocrisy of saying these things about some lawyers and not others. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel aren’t accusing the lawyers who advised Boris Johnson on partygate of facilitating breaches of the Covid rules.

It is the deliberate smearing of people doing their jobs, to prevent ordinary scrutiny of decision making. All structures to provide checks and balances are being deliberately undermined. We are genuinely on the road to a totalitarian regime. Yes, lawyers can’t dictate what people say. It isn’t about personal discomfort at dinner parties but they must complain when rhetoric is being deployed that has already caused an attempt to murder one of them, and the purpose of which is to act as cover for something very sinister.

(23)(3)

Anon

Immigration will always be an easy target. But the motivation behind the government’s recent attempt to reform JR, to curtail the court’s power to scrutinise ministerial exercise of perogative powers (and much of the early lefty lawyer bashing) was undeniably Miller No.1 (in which the court upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty in the face of unconstitutional use of executive power) and Miller No. 2 (when the court did the same thing). Surely all lawyers, not just lefty ones who practice in JR, would agree that the courts were right to hold the executive to account when they attempted to prologue parliament because it wouldn’t do what the executive wanted?
To be clear, not a lefty lawyer, or a human rights lawyer, just a lawyer concerned to see the courts power to uphold the rule of law protected.

(3)(0)

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