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Downing Street issued threats to the Supreme Court judges – but the rule of law has come out on top

The judges today applied the law ‘without fear or favour’ – and it would be utterly wrong for anyone to suggest they would ever do otherwise

Richard Atkins
Tuesday 24 September 2019 13:06 BST
Supreme Court rules the prime minister’s decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful

We have reached a low point in our history when a faceless “No10 source” refers to "remainiac lawyers" and issues threats to the judiciary about its constitutional role, suggesting that judges take sides. A comment like this, in these politically charged times, threatens the core principles which underpin government under the rule of law.

The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are fundamental pillars of our constitution and our democracy – as today’s judgement proves. Judges do not take sides as the anonymous Downing Street source suggests. In accordance with their judicial oath the judges today applied the law "without fear or favour" – and it would be utterly wrong for anyone to suggest they would ever do otherwise.

It is a matter of deep concern to have to restate these principles when lawyers associated with the Supreme Court decision over parliament’s role in Brexit are not only receiving death threats but having the location of their family homes publicised on social media by a journalist, simply for doing their job in representing their clients. It is not the way we do things in the UK and should be clamped down on.

The revelation of a lawyer’s personal details is a serious matter, a breach of their and their family’s privacy, and not one that members of the UK press, the majority of whom are responsible journalists, should report.

Threatening lawyers engaged in any litigation who are simply discharging their professional duties risks damaging the proper administration of justice on which the rule of law depends. Such threats should not be tolerated. Barristers practising in the legal system are independent and objective advocates. They are trained to advise their clients on the strengths and weaknesses of their case and to advocate their cause objectively. They are duty-bound to act in the interests of their clients, irrespective of their own beliefs, and not to mislead the court.

They do not put forward their personal opinions, but act on their client’s instructions. Judges reach objective decisions based upon the evidence placed before them and their interpretation of the law. They act independently of politics, a principle which cannot be stressed too highly in these febrile times.

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In other countries and fragile states we have seen the consequences which follow when the rule of law has been disregarded if not openly abandoned. Lawyers, judges and journalists are persecuted and imprisoned for defending their clients and standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable in society – that is, fulfilling their professional duties. The Bar Council has not hesitated to speak out in defence of our fellow legal professionals when these situations arise, and we shall continue to do so. We shall call on political leaders to give the rule of law the value and weight it deserves.

We would never for a moment imagine that this principle, based upon Magna Carta settled over 800 years ago, for which our legal system has become world-renowned, could be casually laid aside to suit the convenience of politicians closer to home. The separation of the powers of the Executive (government), Legislature (parliament) and Judiciary are the foundations of our democratic way of life. We allow this separation of powers to be eroded at our peril, which is why lawyers should not hesitate to speak truth to power. Lawyers should not be vilified for doing so or threatened with reprisals for acting in accordance with their professional duty.

The recently reported comments attributed to a “No 10 source” display a complete failure to understand how our legal system operates and threaten to undermine the role of our independent judiciary and thus the rule of law. They should be repudiated immediately lest they send a signal to the rest of the world, and to the people of the United Kingdom, that the government no longer places any value on the rule of law. There is too much at stake for the future of our country to allow this to happen.

Richard Atkins QC is the chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales

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