Priti Patel has been accused of putting the lives and safety of lawyers and court staff at risk after she branded those defending migrants as “lefties” and “do-gooders.
The president of the Law Society said that the home secretary’s comments, in a speech to the Conservative conference, had undermined the legal system.
And the chair of the Bar Council said that Ms Patel was seeking to “demonise” people carrying out a vital public service.
Immigration barrister Simon Cox of Doughty Street Chambers said that the Home Secretary had endangered the safety of anyone working in the court system.
In her speech on Sunday, Ms Patel promised to reform the “broken” asylum system by curtailing “endless” legal cases and making immediate returns easier.
And she attempted to lump immigration lawyers in with people-traffickers as she attacked those who she claimed were defending a system which they profit from.
“No doubt those who are well-rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights,” said the Home Secretary.
“Those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party – they are defending the indefensible.”
Her attack on “lefty human rights lawyers and do-gooders” was repeated by prime minister Boris Johnson in his speech to conference today.
Law Society president Simon Davis - who had previously written to the Home Office to complain about a video attacking “activist lawyers” - said: “The fact that a lawyer represents an asylum seeker does not make them a ‘lefty lawyer’. It simply makes them a lawyer.
“Slinging insults at lawyers undermines the rule of law in an area where views are already hotly held on all sides and risks leading not just to verbal abuse but to lawyers being physically attacked for doing their job.
“It undermines a legal system which has evolved over many centuries, which helps ensure that power is not abused and that - where there are legal questions to be decided - citizens have access to legal advice and recourse through the courts, and will receive a fair hearing, no matter how their case is perceived publicly or by government.
“Attacks on members of the legal profession for doing their jobs do our country no credit. Government ministers must be unequivocal in their support for the rule of law.”
And Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto said: “Attempting to paint lawyers with the ‘leftie’ brush seeks to demonise the very people helping constituents every day, without agenda, simply because they provide a vital public service.
"Lawyers carry out their duty and apply the law, irrespective of political persuasion, in accordance with our professional standards. Given our duty to the court and our commitment to justice more generally, barristers, as well as solicitors, must do just that.
“It is not the job of lawyers to limit parliament’s own laws in a way that the government of the day finds most favourable to its political agenda. The law, not politics, is what matters to a profession that upholds the rule of law.” Ms Pinto pointed out that Ms Patel’s cabinet colleague Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland had said only a few days ago: “It is wholly wrong for any professional to be threatened, harassed or worse, attacked simply for doing their job – we must call it out and deal with it. And make the point that those who attack people providing a professional service will be subject to that very same rule of law.’”
Mr Cox said that Ms Patel was ready to “throw lawyers under a bus”.
He said: “Patel doesn’t care if immigration lawyers - or staff who work with us - get murdered. She will have been warned of the risks. She deliberately chooses to take them, while the Lord Chancellor, Attorney General and Solicitor General are silent.
“Barristers aren’t allowed, under our rules, to turn away clients because of what they’ve done. I’ve represented convicted murderers and victims of terrible crimes.
“Our job is to try and ensure the law is upheld by the powerful: the courts and the state. That’s why Patel hates us.
“My fellow lawyers and support staff - paralegals, secretaries, barristers clerks, cleaners, receptionists, IT staff, accountants, managers - we make sure justice works for all of us.
“Our safety matters. Our judges and support staff - clerks, ushers, security staff, court lawyers , cleaners, receptionists - are essential, of course.
“The Home Secretary’s inflammatory speeches endanger their safety too. Does she think her most extreme followers won’t attack immigration courts?
“There’s one more group of public servants Patel is recklessly endangering - her own staff and her own lawyers. They are at courts and tribunals every day.
“Patel doesn’t care. Like Trump spluttering coronavirus over people who protect him, she’ll throw anyone under the bus.”
Mr Davis challenged Ms Patel’s claims that lawyers are to blame for opposing reform of the asylum system.
He pointed out that 53 per cent of asylum applications are granted on initial application, rising to 73 per cent when appeals are taken into account.
And he said: “The Law Society has long called for improvements to the UK asylum and immigration system, which is beset with delays and poor decision-making.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Lawyers play an important role in upholding the law and ensuring people have access to justice, and we are absolutely clear that any form of violence against them is utterly unacceptable.
“We will continue to return those who have been through the legal system, had their application for asylum refused and have no legal right to remain in the UK, and look forward to working with the legal sector to reform our immigration and asylum system.”
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