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The Rule of Law

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Naturally, I do not disclose the details of private conversations I have with Cabinet colleagues, but they, and everybody else who cares to listen, should be in no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, a very active Lord Chancellor in supporting the rule of law, using the authority of my office to advise, to warn and to encourage. I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took, to my constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law.

The Lord Chancellor said he would resign if he saw the rule of law being broken in a way that he found unacceptable. Ten days ago, more than 800 of some of the most senior legal figures across the UK wrote to the Prime Minister stating that attacks on the legal profession by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary undermine the rule of law. When he read that letter and saw the signatories, did he think things had got to the stage of being unacceptable?

The hon. Lady is eliding two issues. I was talking in early September about the United Kingdom (Internal Market) Bill. Since then, the Government made important concessions in this House to qualify the coming into force of those provisions, and set out examples where, to all intents and purposes, the EU would have acted in clear bad faith. She is eliding the two issues, I hope inadvertently. When it comes to defending the legal profession, I have already publicly stated my steadfast support for the profession that I am honoured to be a part of.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lord Dyson described the Government’s toxic rhetoric on the legal profession as “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “inflammatory,” and

“the language of a demagogue.”

The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, said the Government’s language is indecent and typifies

“precisely this sort of ugly authoritarianism that the rule of law is called upon to counter.”

What discussions has the Lord Chancellor had with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about those very serious allegations from senior lawyers?

As I said in response to the previous question, I do not disclose details of discussions I have with Cabinet colleagues. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and everybody else that people should be in no doubt about my steadfast defence not just of the judiciary but of an independent legal profession. We have, of course, seen criticism of lawyers throughout the ages. I respect the views of members of my profession, but we should put things into their full context.

I welcome what the Lord Chancellor said about defending the legal profession and I join him in that. It is an honourable profession and I have always found that those I dealt with at the Bar and solicitors generally left their politics behind when they went to argue the case for their client, which they must do without fear or favour. Equally, will he recognise that when he and I were doing an awful lot of legal aid work in practice, the former leader of the Labour party and then Prime Minister was describing legal aid lawyers as fat cats? No one has entirely clean hands on this and perhaps we all ought to moderate our language when dealing with the professions.

The Chair of the Justice Committee puts the matter into its fullest context. Sadly, from Shakespeare onwards, and probably before, lawyers have come in for criticism. The question is how far that goes. We live in a lively democracy and none of us is above criticism, but I say to him that in all my years in practice, I did precisely what he did, which was to leave my politics at home whenever I went into chambers or into the courtroom.

Our country is a country that prides itself on the rule of law. Without lawyers, the rule of law would collapse. In recent weeks, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have launched repeated attacks on lawyers representing asylum seekers. Even after a man launched a knife attack on an immigration solicitor days after the Home Secretary condemned “activist lawyers”, the Government continue to pour petrol on the fire. Does the Lord Chancellor agree with his colleagues’ characterisation of legal professionals as “activist lawyers”, or does he have the courage to publicly condemn that vile rhetoric?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that on two occasions in public forums, I have made my defence of lawyers very clear and made it clear that physical and verbal attacks and the other types of threat that we might see are entirely unacceptable. He talks rightly about a very serious case that is ongoing—I do not think it would be right for me to comment directly upon it—but we all know the context within which we operate. I can assure him that I will continue in my resolute defence of lawyers. I will say this: I think there are times when there is a legitimate debate to be had, and I firmly believe that lawyers who are passionate about politics are best advised, if they wish to pursue politics, to do as he and I did, which is to get elected and pursue politics here or in other democratic forums.

The Home Secretary’s remit includes responsibility for making sure that all our communities are kept safe and secure. On 7 September, a man wielding a knife entered an immigration lawyers’ office in London and launched a violent, racist attack. In mid-September, counter-terrorist police from SO15 warned the Home Secretary that it was suspected that a far-right extremist had attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at a solicitors’ firm in London, yet in early October at the Tory party conference, she went on to intensify her anti-lawyer rhetoric. I am not asking the Lord Chancellor to disclose the precise details of private conversations, but can he confirm newspaper reports that prior to her speech, he warned the Home Secretary against using this sort of language? If she will not listen to him, will he consider his position?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for the way in which she put her question, but I have to repeat again that it would be invidious of me to repeat private conversations. She knows that I have been publicly on the record twice in the last month making my position very clear and condemning attacks. I think she would agree that we all need to be careful, as lawyers, about a matter that is currently sub judice and within the criminal process. Therefore, I think it is best not to try to draw direct links at this stage without knowing more about the evidence, but I reassure her that I will continue to do everything I can to make sure that the tone of the debate is right and that passions are cooled when it comes to talking about the important role of lawyers.

I reiterate that I am not asking the Lord Chancellor for the precise details of conversations or, indeed, to comment on an ongoing case. I am asking him about the general advice that he has given to his colleagues in relation to his duties and responsibilities regarding the rule of law, because, after the Home Secretary’s speech, the Prime Minister went even further in his conference speech, declaring that he would prevent

“the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by…lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”

I ask the Lord Chancellor again: are newspaper reports that he spoke with the Prime Minister in advance of that speech correct? And did he tell the Prime Minister about the attack on the immigration lawyers’ offices and the warnings from counter-terrorism police to the Home Secretary about the dangers of inflammatory language against lawyers?

I can assure the hon. and learned Lady that the information about the serious allegations about the attack has been communicated to the appropriate Ministers and that everything that I have done and will continue to do is entirely consistent with my duty. Although, sadly, it might be the province of previous and current Prime Ministers to make provocative and sometimes lively comments about the legal profession, it is not the job of the Lord Chancellor to police every jot and tittle. I will continue to make sure that we get the tone of the debate right and that where we can improve on our language, we will do so.