Government attacks on lawyers ‘undermine rule of law’, says Lord Chief Justice

Priti Patel hit out at ‘leftie lawyers’ in conference speech after concern over Home Office video on ‘activist lawyers’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 10 November 2020 15:09 GMT
Priti Patel has been condemned for her proposals to overhaul the asylum process
Priti Patel has been condemned for her proposals to overhaul the asylum process ( )

The most senior judge in England and Wales has accused ministers of undermining the rule of law with verbal attacks on lawyers.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said lawyers should not be criticised for “acting fearlessly” for clients after the home secretary was condemned for remarks on “activist lawyers”.

It came after a man was accused of attempting a far-right terror attack at a London solicitors’ firm in September.

Cavan Medlock is charged with planning to kill a lawyer from Duncan Lewis Solicitors because of their work representing migrants.

“A general attack on the legal profession in my view undermines the rule of law,” the Lord Chief Justice told parliament’s Justice Committee on Tuesday.

“Identifiable individual failings, unfortunate though they are, do not begin to justify a general attack upon the integrity of groups of lawyers.”

He quoted a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, suggesting that it was immature for ministers to “boo” when disappointed about the outcome of legal action.

“The vitality and independence of the legal profession is an essential hallmark of a society governed by the rule of law,” the Lord Chief Justice added.

“None of this immunises the individual conduct of lawyers from criticism in appropriate circumstances.”

He did not name any politicians, but had been asked to respond to “comments made by members of the government about the role of lawyers within the justice system”.

A government spokesperson said: “The government is clear any form of violence against lawyers is unacceptable. Lawyers play an important role in upholding the law and ensuring people have access to justice. They are however not immune from criticism.”

The Home Office sparked a backlash in August, when a video was posted on its official Twitter account referring to immigration lawyers advising migrants who crossed the English Channel as “activist lawyers” trying to “delay and disrupt returns”.

At the Conservative Party conference, Priti Patel referred to “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” in a speech on the asylum system.

Priti Patel says asylum system is 'broken' and promises reform

The prime minister vowed to stop the criminal justice system being “hamstrung” by “lefty human rights lawyers”.

Last month, more than 800 former judges and legal professionals have signed a letter accusing Boris Johnson and Ms Patel of “hostility” towards lawyers representing asylum seekers.

The letter accused them of endangering lawyers’ safety and undermining the rule of law, calling for an apology.

“We are all deeply concerned at recent attacks, made by the home secretary and echoed by the prime minister, on lawyers seeking to hold the government to the law,” it added.

”We invite both the home secretary and the prime minister to behave honourably by apologising for their display of hostility, and to refrain from such attacks in the future.“

The Lord Chief Justice said a “sense of unease” in the legal profession had been conveyed to him by representatives of barristers and solicitors.

But he said he had discussed the issue with Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, and was satisfied with his response.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “The Lord Chief Justice is absolutely right. Attacking lawyers for doing their job undermines the rule of law on which our society is built.

“The home secretary and the prime minister should stop the divisive insults and issue an immediate apology for their attacks on lawyers.”

MPs also questioned the judge on progress against a backlog of court cases that has increased dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic.

There are almost 50,000 outstanding crown court cases, up from 40,000 in March, the committee heard.

The backlog in magistrates’ courts, where social distancing is made easier by the lack of juries, has fallen slightly from a peak of almost half a million in the summer.

Lord Burnett said he expected the number of magistrates’ cases to be back to the levels seen before coronavirus by Easter or not long after.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said courts were facing months of difficulty (Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire)

“The picture in the crown court is turning out to be more difficult,” he added, saying around 50 cases a week could be tackled with courts running at full capacity.

“It will take a long time to recover the backlog, it’s impossible to say precisely how long because it depends on too many variables.”

Several trials have already been delayed by jurors undergoing coronavirus tests, developing symptoms or receiving advice to isolate from test and trace.

“This is going to become an increasing problem in the event Covid is not contained,” Lord Burnett said.

“Whatever happens we are going to have a few more months of difficulty, potentially many more months”

There have not yet been any discussions over whether court staff or participants could be prioritised for any vaccine.

Crime fell sharply during the first three months of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, but proactive police operations created a steady stream of new court cases and crime returned to normal levels as restrictions lifted.

Although the new lockdown is expected to suppress some crime types again, Lord Burnett said the complexity of cases was increasing and the recruitment of 20,000 police officers could add to the workload.

Legal groups said the government had created a backlog before the coronavirus pandemic by cutting the number of days that courts can sit on, in order to save money.

Limits have been lifted for this year, and Lord Burnett said it was “absolutely vital” for government funding to allow courts to work at full capacity in 2021.

He said that otherwise there would be a “danger that much larger backlogs are baked into the system”, adding: “I am extremely concerned to avoid the position where the backlogs we have accumulated during covid being viewed by anybody as a new normal. Funding has got to be provided to enable us to deal with the work coming in as well as the backlog.”

A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: “There is no limit on sitting days for the next six months and we will set out plans for the next year in due course.”

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