Lawyers – a defence

It isn’t a new thing for lawyers to be in the firing line. Henry IV Part 2 is not one of the more performed of Shakespeare’s plays, but the quote “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is one which many of us will have heard. Lawyers have been the butt of many jokes over the years, some of which are more benign than others, and we are accustomed to the received wisdom that our services are a necessary but not always welcome purchase. Like many others in the legal profession, I have a thick enough skin and enough of a sense of humour left to cope with all that. Nevertheless, after a number of months of silence, I’ve picked up the quill pen again, provoked to do so by the Home Secretary’s most recent reference to “lefty lawyers” made this week in the context of the proposed refugee scheme involving Rwanda.

Let me make it plain that I’m not a lawyer who generally makes it his business to defend his profession. I don’t tend to spend much time away from the office in the company of lawyers and I don’t tend to feel that lawyers as a whole deserve any special status because of what we do. When it comes down to it, most lawyers are people earning a living doing what, at best, they enjoy, or, more mundanely, what they trained to do as a result of a choice which they made as young adults. So why, given the major global security issue and human suffering going on in Ukraine at the moment or the looming problems for many caused by the domestic squeeze in living standards, have I resumed action because of a comment about lawyers?

The Home Secretary’s latest statement is not the first occasion on which she has attacked lawyers, nor is it the first occasion on which she has used the phrase “lefty lawyer” in the context of immigration. The Prime Minister has also used the phrase on more than one occasion. His targets have included human rights lawyers who were accused of hamstringing the criminal justice system, and lawyers who were advising claimants against members of the armed forces.

It is notable that in some of these areas at least, the Government has problems which it is struggling to solve. People smuggling has been a tough opponent to tackle. The criminal justice system is, in the estimation of many, underfunded and has been creaking for some time, unrelieved by the tinkering which has been undertaken rather than the root and branch review that is needed. In those contexts, lawyers appear to represent an easy distraction target.

But let’s also not forget that this is a government which has suffered a number of high profile legal reverses. The examples are many, but include its being called resoundingly to account by the Supreme Court over its unconstitutional prorogation of Parliament, its being found by a court to have awarded a large contract to supply PPE during the early stages of the Covid crisis in breach of procurement rules and its having lost so many human rights cases that the justice secretary has suggested that the Government will legislate to correct human rights decisions which it feels that courts have made incorrectly. It is also a Government which, as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s latest trip to the headmaster’s study with readily predictable further apology followed by shouting about other issues, is attempting to trivialise its own multiple breaches of the Covid restrictions which it devised and regularly told us were of the utmost importance in the strategy against the virus.

Law is important stuff. It is, arguably, the principal structure which supports a civilised society. Lawyers are an important part of making sure that it works, including assisting those who believe that the Government of the day is not acting in accordance with the law. A Government which is responsible for making law and oversees the court system through which it is applied and yet appears to have such scant regard for the law itself, as well as such easy contempt for those who are simply doing their job in advising people on their legal rights, risks opening the door to unwelcome visitors. Images of the Trump fuelled assault on Congress spring to mind, as do the populists and political extremists who history shows us thrive on vacuums which emerge in a society’s institutions. So it’s not really slinging mud at lawyers that’s the important issue, but how Government treats law. To express contempt for lawyers who challenge the Government using inaccurate and glibly political terms compounds the issue. I hope that it stops, but I’m afraid to say that I’m not holding my breath.


Ian Waine
Senior Partner