A leading British lawyer has compared UK government attacks on the profession to the tactics used by authoritarian regimes.
Helena Kennedy KC, one of the UK’s most renowned criminal lawyers and a Labour peer, said ministers were deliberately creating scapegoats.
Speaking in her capacity as the president of council at the law reform and human rights charity Justice before publication of its report on threats to the rule of law, one of which it identifies as “disparagement of lawyers and judges”, Lady Kennedy stressed that its findings were non-political.
She said that Justice represented concerns shared across the political divide, and highlighted that she had clashed with Labour when it was in power, including over detention without trial.
Kennedy said: “I run the institute of human rights for the International Bar Association and one of the things I am seeing all the time is our lawyers under attack under authoritarian regimes. The first thing that authoritarians do is they go after judges that make decisions that they don’t like.
“They go after journalists, they go after any of their critics, whether it’s [Alexei] Navalny (in Russia) or it’s in Turkey or in Iran, they go after lawyers and they end up jailing lawyers and undermining public confidence in lawyers. And so we should recognise that as one part of the story of how law is undermined and respect for law is undermined. It’s about denying accountability.”
Justice’s report, published on Monday, says there has been a “palpable trend” in the UK over the past five years of increasingly derogatory remarks such as “lefty lawyer” and “activist lawyer”.
It highlights examples such as the reaction to the government’s defeat in two Brexit cases, and ministers’ comments on lawyers challenging immigration policy, including, most recently, the Conservative party dossier on Jacqueline McKenzie provided to the media.
Kennedy said respect for the law was undermined by saying “oh, they’re all lefty lawyers that represent people who are applying for asylum, or people who have immigration problems”.
On what this meant for the rule of law, she said: “They criticise lawyers who are legal aid lawyers for actually acting for those who couldn’t afford litigation. We don’t want the courts to be the place in which only the wealthy can enjoy justice. What we’re seeing in the insults and abuses of our judiciary – that unelected judges are making decisions – we want unelected judges at one stage removed to be able to make judgments about what is right and what is the appropriate use of power and about who is abusing it and who are abusers of the rules of our society.”
The report refers to concerns raised by some that the supreme court has fallen into step with the government in recent years and says that even if it is mere coincidence, it might give the perception that the UK’s highest court “has been influenced by ministerial pressure”.
Referring to the treatment of McKenzie, Kennedy, a longtime champion of women’s rights, said women often bore the brunt of attacks because “by and large we’re in those areas that are not properly funded and that often involve emotional literacy and it makes them [women] vulnerable to those kinds of criticisms”.
Among a host of recommendations to protect the rule of law, the report says the government must safeguard judicial independence and the legal profession and reject the use of inflammatory language against them.
Kennedy said: “Many of the people who are lawyers on the Conservative benches are as concerned as people like me, so this is not confined to ‘lefty lawyers’. This is something that is shared by decent lawyers, lawyers who believe in the rule of law.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Everyone is entitled to representation whatever their case or their cause. We have always been clear that no lawyer should suffer harassment or abuse for doing their job.”