Cab rank rule row rocks the Bar

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Does saving the planet trump barristers’ professional obligation to represent everyone?

Barristers are at loggerheads over a letter penned by over 100 lawyers pledging to refuse to act for companies supporting new fossil fuel projects or to prosecute peaceful climate change protesters.

This would be a breach of the cab rank rule, barristers’ famous and ancient professional obligation to represent everyone.

The letter, which emerged this week, was signed by legal big names including Jolyon Maugham KC, Professor Leslie Thomas KC and Paul Powlesland. Maugham, a former tax barrister who now runs The Good Law Project, a not for profit campaign organisation, followed it up with a piece in The Guardian yesterday, in which he explained his reasoning:

“Sometimes the law is wrong. What it stands for is the opposite of justice. Today’s history books speak with horror about what the law of yesterday did, of how it permitted racism, rape and murder. And tomorrow’s history books will say the same about the law as it stands today, of how it enabled the destruction of our planet and the displacement of billions of people.”

Criminal barristers have expressed unease with the letter’s sentiment, pointing out that many of its signatories are not on the Crown Prosecution Service panel and so are not allowed to prosecute anyway. The Secret Barrister, an anonymous prosecutor, wrote on Twitter:

“I’m a criminal barrister.That means that I prosecute when I’m instructed to prosecute. And defend when I’m instructed to defend. I don’t only act for people I like. Or in whose cause I “believe”. My personal view on what somebody is accused of plays no part in my job. The day that I decide I cannot defend or prosecute somebody because of what they are accused of, is the day that I should find another profession. Because the entire point of the independent Bar is to provide representation. Not to judge the cause of the clients we represent.”

Joanna Hardy-Susskind, another high profile criminal law specialist, added this morning:

Meanwhile, Lawyers Are Responsible, the group behind the letter, shows no signs of backing down.

Yesterday Bar Standards Board (BSB) head Mark Neale warned:

“If a self employed barrister receives instructions from a professional client, and the instructions are appropriate taking into account their experience, seniority and area of practice, they are generally obliged to accept those instructions irrespective of the identity of the client, the nature of their case and any belief they may have as to the client’s character or cause. This rule, which is known as the ‘cab-rank’ rule is designed to ensure that everyone can have access to legal advice.”

However, with most of the letter’s signatories not criminal barristers or specialists in acting for fossil fuel companies, and therefore unlikely to find themselves compelled to break the cab rank rule personally, the BSB may in reality be spared an embarrassing stand off.



It would be a lot more credible if criminal barristers on the front line made this pledge rather than wealthy boomer former tax lawyers 🤣



I fail to see how the practice areas of the Barristers involved is relevant. Notwithstanding the climate crisis is far bigger than a legal practice area.


Archibald Pomp O'City

“I fail to see how the practice areas of the Barristers involved is relevant. Notwithstanding the climate crisis is far bigger than a legal practice area.”

You should have stopped writing after your first two words.


Make My Standards A Double

Casual ageism. Double standards at play again.



This will set a precedent whereby barristers could start refusing instructions based on a client’s political views, ethnicity or simply any other excuse they can think of.

Being a barrister is optional. If you cannot be bothered to do the work, step aside and let someone else have that pupillage opportunity.

I come from an immigrant background. I don’t have the luxury to refuse to take planes to visit sick family members in Asia just because a barrister claims that my flight will ‘destroy the planet’. How exactly am I meant to keep a job in London and to visit my family in Asia unless I fly?

Powlesland and his like don’t speak for me.


Non sequitur

What does this have anything to do with the content of the article?

Were you not taught in law school to answer the question asked, not the question you wish you were asked?


Law School

I’ve never seen a criminal barrister return a case that is poorly paid when a private brief comes in the door that clashes with existing court dates…oh wait



It feels weird to see non-criminal barristers telling criminal barristers how to behave and implying that they are morally superior in some way.



It’s not realistic to expect criminal barristers to stop climate change. Instead the signatories of this letter need to focus on changing the mindset of the general population sufficiently so that juries no longer are willing to find climate change protesters guilty. But a read of the Daily Mail comments shows that we are a long way from that. That’s where the hard work should be taking place to change hearts and minds rather this half hearted advocacy for unsustainable top down change.



Agreed. The problem with Maugham and Powlesland is that they think the world revolves around lawyers. It really doesn’t. If they are serious about campaigning they need to get their hands dirty with the hard grind of convincing the masses, not these lame short cuts.



But the utensils in Powlesland and Maugham’s kitchen, the toys that their kids play with, the casings of their iPhone cables, even the reading glasses they wear to read case papers are PLASTIC and rely on fossil fuels to be produced.

Who exactly do they think they are to tell the ‘masses’ anything?

What arrogance.



What?? You don’t have to completely extricate yourself from society to criticise it.


This cab's not for hire

Indeed, you don’t have to extricate yourself, but if you want to hector other members of society about drastic changes in every facet of life to address a so-called “emergency” (none of the doom laden prognostications of various places being underwater by X date have come true) then you need to show you are doing something.

That does not mean “the hard grind of convincing the masses”, it means putting your money and your mind towards developing new technologies. If that is beyond the capabilities of Jolly On and friends, then they should at least get down to the hard grind of convincing our rulers of the need to build nuclear power stations as, on their assumptions, that is the only realistic means available of reducing the 4% contribution humanity makes to that 0.4% of gases in the atmosphere that they claim is leading us to disaster.

Jon Reddington

The issue is that the cab rank rule is that it is i) rarely strictly enforced and ii) aso only purportedly obliges barristers to take on unpopular clients when those client can afford them.

As such it means that rich people can take their pick of legal representative whereas poor people cannot.

The cab rank rule is LITERALLY an embodiment of the principle of one rule for the rich, one rule for the poor.



It’s a jolly holiday with Jolyon, virtue signalling with the woke.

Thinks he standing for the planet, he’s just become a bigger joke.


Scouser of Counsel

Sorry, but “the law is wrong” doesn’t trump the Cab Rank Rule here.

I have had to represent some vile people in my time, and prosecuted some who I thought did not deserve to be in the dock.

If barristers could pick and choose their clients based on personal preferences, the whole thing would grind to a halt.

I would love nothing more than to be able to refuse to represent, for instance, convicted paedophiles who were alleged to have re-offended.

But I have to put my own views to one side when I do so, because of the wider principle that I should represent my client’s best interests in every case, whether they are the CPS or an alleged sex offender.

Slippery slope, and just because some of them are KC’s doesn’t mean they’re right.



‘just because some of them are KC’s doesn’t mean they’re right’

Absolutely. It’s definitely a trend though whereby KCs spend hours on Twitter expostulating and gain huge amounts of followers and attention only for the fact they are KCs.

It’s incredibly dangerous to assume KC = can do no wrong.



Surely this is gross misconduct by these KCs meriting summary disbarment by the BSB?

This “Declaration of Conscience” brings the legal profession into severe dis-repute and creates a horrifying precedent for the future.

The fact that they have the arrogance to proclaim themselves above the law, and jeopardise the future impartiality and safety of lawyers and fair access to justice all for the sake of their own petty political vanity is shocking and disgusting.

This must not be allowed to stand for one moment or lawyers representing anyone that this group disapproves of will face abuse, or worse, from supporters of their political views.

They are not fit for office.

Please contact the BSB if you agree with my view.



This will 100% become a slippery slope, the left clearly can’t fathom that people still deserve legal representation even if they happen to hold views that are different to their own. This isn’t the Soviet Union…



Absolutely right.

Members of the commercial bar never make a public ‘declaration of conscience’ when it comes to representing known money launderers, any of Putin’s buddies in the UK, construction companies in Dubai with dodgy safety records or when chambers takes on a pupil who has been to the same public school as the Head of Chambers’ kids.

It’s incredible how ‘climate change’ is literally now a religion.


Linked Inn

In the real world unless you do publicly funded work or have a very empty diary then the cab rank rule is not going to affect which cases you take on.



This is almost certainly true, but it does not affect the importance of the Cab Rank Rule and the reason why this assault on the rule is so heinous.

The Cab Rank Rule creates a very effective illusion that barrister’s act impartially. When barristers represent an odious client, as the principal of fair access to law requires, the Cab Rank Rule ensures that the barrister cannot be tarred with their client’s brush.

By being publicly contemptuous of this rule these senior barristers are willfully and deliberately opening the way for barrister’s to be tarred with their client’s brush, and exposed to criticism, abuse and quite possibly worse if anyone considers their client odious. This can be expected to impair font-line barrister’s actual willingness to represent odious clients and thereby the right to a fair trial.

To make matters worse, I am told that most, if not all, of the signatories are in positions that mean they would be extremely unlikely to be obliged by this rule to actually represent a client that they are defining as odious. This makes their assault on the rule of law utterly indefensible. They can not even claim some moral defense as they risk nothing. Their sole motive can only be to elevate their own political view over the law of the land, and threaten the safety of all barristers that do in fact have to defend odious clients, and the right to a free trial. Some even admit this proudly and have referred themselves to the BSB.

Presumably these lawyer’s hope to cow or blackmail the BSB into submission. What arrogance! What contempt!

The BSB must not be bullied nor waver in their role of defending the rule of law. These solicitor’s should all be disbarred for life for gross abuse of their extremely privileged positions by deliberately and willfully threatening the rule of law and bringing the profession into disrepute for the purpose of promoting their personal political views and vanity.


A member of the public

I think we would all be happier with such comment if you represented the individual without any money whatsoever. That is not the case. The BSB is not defending justice if it does not stand up for the principle of justice, if it merely defends the right of the wealthy to manipulate the system. Easy for them to do at the moment. And very few barristers speak up for the small guy particularly in civil cases, and the few who do are treated with contempt. Thank you for this interesting insight into how the courts and law are failing the public in this country. That’s the general un monied public not the rich billionaire or corporates. The systems in this country are certainly worth monitoring for their lack of impartiality and clear evidence of discrimination. Those words are used with the standards of the U.N. Human Rights Watch in mind not the barely there attempt by the law makers of this country.


Do Me A Favour

“Legal big names”…”Paul Powlesland”.

These words do not make particularly comfortable bedfellows.


pee'd off

I truly hope the Bar Council takes action against the barristers who have signed. As other comments have said, the cab rank rule is rarely enforced, likely because of the difficulty of gathering evidence (who could really disprove a barrister saying they’re too busy to give a case the full attention it deserves?). This is hard evidence of barristers breaching a core rule of conduct. It’s egregious, it undermines the rest of the profession, and unethical.

As another commenter has said, being a barrister is optional – if you don’t want to adhere to its most fundamental principle, then go become a politician, be a campaigner, join a thinktank. Don’t leverage your professional qualifications to weigh in on global issues to which you have no special expertise. It’s embarrassing for the rest of us. These buffoons think the world revolves around them, and I hope they get punished for overstepping the mark



Is the bar council likely to intervene on a purely theoretical breach of the rule? As if jolyon would ever be instructed to act in a criminal prosecution. Is there even a breach in circumstances where a barrister isn’t actually in receipt of instructions? It is the paragon of virtue signalling.


pee'd off

good point – I don’t know actually. But they should!



It is not the theoretical breach of the rule that the BSB must address: It is the actual contempt for the rule, and the actual, effective assault on the foundations of the legal system that their declaration unashamedly represents.



Like a good Caby, I only pick up customers who can pay. I know from a mile away a wrong’un. Usually, scruffy clothes and a lack of King’s English give it away. I keep it classy. 100 per cent! Playa!



@Alex Aldridge

re “the BSB may in reality be spared an embarrassing stand off.”

What a disconcerting conclusion to your article! Why would the BSB be embarrassed? Why would the BSB stand off from their duty?


A member of the public

Shall we drill into the ethics of how and why London has become the money laundering centre of the world? Apparently enabled by a host of solicitors, barristers and others. Was it about the Cab Rank Rule or was it about the cash. Discuss


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