Another week, another comment from the home secretary whipping up hatred against lawyers. This time it was after the Liverpool car-bomb, when she was itching to blame lawyers for the fact that the bomber was still in the country to carry out his crime (she has blamed others, too, for her current political difficulties: France, the EU and her own civil servants).
She said of the asylum system:
‘It’s a complete merry-go-round and it has been exploited. A whole sort of professional legal services industry has based itself on rights of appeal, going to the courts day in, day out at the expense of the taxpayers through legal aid.’
There was barely a stir in the legal press, which is wrong in my view.
Adam Wagner, a prominent lawyer, wrote the right response. He noted that it was the Home Office which had not removed the bomber after his unsuccessful appeal, and that court records showed that the bomber had not even been represented at his appeals by lawyers. He asked:
‘What does the Home Secretary think that stoking anger against lawyers in a terrorism situation, which plainly has absolutely nothing to do with lawyers, will achieve?’
And, after giving his views, he received a threat:
‘Adam Wagner. Some advice. Get yourself elite 24 hour security. Your going to need it … ‘ (followed by laughing emojis).
The Law Society issued a low-key response on the attack on lawyers:
‘The lawyers who advise any such claimants provide a public service. They deserve our gratitude for protecting the rights of refugees and ensuring justice is done.’
I would have gone further. I would have pointed to internationally accepted principles which protect us, a number of which were breached by the home secretary’s comments, most notably Article 16 of the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers:
‘Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference’.
There are other breaches, too. Articles 13-15 describe lawyers’ proper duties, including ‘Assisting clients in every appropriate way, and taking legal action to protect their interests’. Article 17 says that authorities should adequately safeguard the security of lawyers when threatened as a result of discharging their duties (except that here the authorities themselves are stirring up the threats). Article 18 says the obvious: that lawyers should not be identified with their clients’ interests.
I am sure the home secretary could not care less about any of that. But highlighting the principles would signal to the outside world the gravity of her continuing conduct in putting lawyers under threat for their legitimate work.
The Law Society response did put the UK’s asylum figures in context, though, which is good. It pointed out that 55% of claims are accepted at the first pass, and that:
‘When it comes to appeals, 48% of these are upheld – clear evidence of poor decision-making by the Home Office and why the right of appeal is so important. It is this poor Home Office decision-making coupled with catastrophic delays that are crippling the asylum system.’
There are further facts which give perspective to the UK’s asylum numbers, and form a sobering counterpoint to the home secretary’s aggression. According to the House of Commons Library, there were around 6 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK in 2020. Across the EU27, there were 11 asylum applications for every 10,000 people. When compared with EU countries, the UK ranked 14th out of the individual countries in terms of the number of asylum applications per capita.
At the same time as the home secretary has been attacking lawyers, the health secretary has been blaming doctors for some of the health service’s failings. For instance, he wants to name and shame doctors’ surgeries which do not see sufficient patients face to face.
As a result, just as with the lawyers (since someone turned up with a knife at a law firm after previous abuse from the home secretary, the health secretary’s criticisms have led to a rise in verbal and physical attacks on GPs and their staff. Reception staff have been at the end of almost daily abuse, and a GP’s skull has been fractured. The BMA is considering whether to proceed with industrial action which would lead to a reduction in the work GPs undertake.
What can one do against a government which incites hatred and violence against groups of its own citizens, in this case professionals such as ourselves, while carrying out our professional duties? It may be difficult, and may lead to government blowback, but I believe that our response should be open and very firm, or else the vicious blaming will never stop.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU and international matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member, nor on behalf of the Law Society