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Legal Profession: Government Criticism

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 5 November 2020

What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the video published by the Home Office that referred to activist lawyers. (908169)

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on recent public criticism of the legal profession by the Government. (908171)

I speak regularly with Cabinet colleagues, including the Home Secretary, and I am in no doubt whatever that this Government are rightly proud of the UK’s legal tradition and our legal profession. We benefit enormously from the contribution of our excellent and hard-working lawyers, and I will always champion our profession and lawyers of all stripes, whichever side they represent, but sadly from time to time there are those who take advantage of their position and abuse the court process. In those instances, to pretend that lawyers are somehow beyond criticism is not only naive, but does the public a great disservice.

I listened to that answer, but does the Attorney General agree that she has to speak out and say that she does not condone these attacks? Will she explain what steps she has taken to address the matter with Cabinet members? Can she give me and the House assurances that these attacks, which are corrosive and are undermining the legal profession, will cease immediately?

I am proud of the profession, and in my role as head of the Bar, I will not hesitate to champion the interests of our lawyers. Indeed, given that it is Pro Bono Week, I take this opportunity to thank the thousands of lawyers out there who regularly give their time and their services free of charge on a pro bono basis, helping some of the most vulnerable in our society. I was pleased earlier this year to acknowledge the winners of the LawWorks and Attorney General’s student pro bono awards, and I know that the Solicitor General himself has recently met with members of the community. That is a real mark of a compassionate profession.

At the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said he would prevent the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtlessly like to call lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders. On 9 October, the chair of the Bar wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, copied to the Attorney General, asking the Prime Minister to withdraw those comments. Will she at least see that the chair of the Bar gets a reply to that letter sent a month ago? Those comments are leading to attacks—not just verbal, but often physical—on lawyers.

Lawyers play a vital role in our justice system and in upholding our democratic society. However, I find the words of the Lord Chief Justice very useful. He recently took the opportunity in the Court of Appeal to make the general point that

“it is a matter of regret that a minority of lawyers have lent their professional weight and support to vexatious representations and abusive late legal challenges.”

I find his words prescient and very relevant to this debate. As a friend and ally of the profession, I know the vast majority of our profession uphold the highest standards, but we cannot deny that there is a minority who do not.

I welcome the tone of the Attorney General’s remarks. Does she recognise that it lies in the hands of parliamentarians and legislators to correct faults in the system that are abused? At the same time, will she confirm that the Government are firmly committed to the robustness and public value of an independent legal profession and judiciary and to enhancing that by ramping up the work that we do in public legal education, so that people are generally more aware and better informed of the valuable work that the profession and the judiciary do for us all?

My hon. Friend and I are in total agreement on this. I know that during his years of practice at the Bar, he will have been part of a profession that upheld the highest standards. Generally, the profession is very well policed. We have a robust code of conduct. We have regulatory authorities that call out and discipline those lawyers who fall short of the standards. He is absolutely right that we need an independent and robust profession as part of a fair society, and his role has been critical, not only in public legal education but as a champion for justice as Chairman of the Justice Committee. As he was Master of the Bench of Middle Temple at my own Inn, I can definitely vouch for his overall fabulousness.

Lawyers, like all of us, have the right to work without fear or intimidation. Early in the pandemic, lawyers were rightly identified by this Government as key workers, yet the language used by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister was not only wrong but reckless and does a huge disservice to an entire profession. I am certainly proud of the legal profession. The Attorney General says that she is too, so will she today condemn the references to criminal defence lawyers and immigration lawyers as “activists” and “do-gooders”?

Yes, I know that the hon. Lady had an esteemed career as a lawyer, and we share a common interest in upholding the position of lawyers in our society. Any violence—I must make this clear—is utterly deplorable against any lawyer or anyone going about their work. But we have to be clear that, more broadly, there are lawyers who have gone on the record to make it clear that they are pursuing politics through the courts. There are judges who have felt compelled in their decisions to remind counsel that judicial review is not and should not be regarded as politics by another means. Everyone in the profession needs to heed those observations in making their professional decisions.

I think many in the legal profession will be horrified by the approach that the Attorney General is taking today. She must, like the Lord Chancellor, accept that the comments from the Home Office and the Prime Minister went way beyond legitimate criticism, devaluing the values of lawyers and questioning their motivation. Will she join the criticism of the remarks that were made? Will she also investigate whether sources in the Government and Whitehall have been responsible for identifying individual law firms and lawyers when anonymously briefing newspapers about activities that the Home Secretary and No. 10 are angered by?

The hon. Gentleman refers to law firms and, by implication, the incident, which was very serious and, as I say, deplorable. It is not something to trivialise or politicise, and we should be careful not to draw conclusions about any incident that is under investigation. I know that he specialised in immigration law. I defended the Home Office for many years in the same field of law. We know that the vast majority of lawyers who specialise in immigration law are upholding the highest standards, are devoted to their clients and are working to secure justice. But we only have to look at the records of the Bar Standards Board or the Solicitors Regulation Authority to see that there are those who fall short of those high standards, and it is right that action should be taken to stop that sub-optimal delivery of service.