The debate about independent regulation must take account of our obligation to protect endangered lawyers.

I have been involved in human rights for a long time: taking cases, undertaking fact-finding missions, writing letters, attending trial observations. Much of that work has focused on protecting lawyers abroad who are at risk because they are protecting the rights of others.

Many such lawyers have been mistreated, incarcerated and even killed. I have been a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee for 10 years. We carry on the work in the hope that we are making some difference. We are touched by the stories of these brave souls.

On 28 November I was touched in a different way. Tahir Elci was president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association. Diyarbakir is a city in south-east Turkey, near the Iraqi and Syrian borders. He had dedicated his life to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, especially those of his fellow Kurds who, as a group, have been more persecuted than most over the last few hundred years. Tahir was not just another name on paper, however. He was the first human rights lawyer and close personal friend whose death I have had to deal with.  

At the Law Society we do much on behalf of endangered lawyers. In England and Wales lawyers are endangered by cuts in the public funding regime, taking their clients out of the scope of legal aid and squeezing their margins ever more tightly. We intervene to argue the case that, in the public interest, they should be funded to provide access to justice. And rightly so. In England and Wales some of our livelihoods are endangered, if not by cuts in funding then by greater competition from new entrants to our market.

For people such as Tahir, fighting to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in repressive regimes, it is their lives and not their livelihoods that are endangered. Tahir’s sacrifice was absolute. He was killed while calling for an end to the fighting in the strife-ridden south-east of Turkey. His death is one of many. Those brave individuals who remain to fight on when persecuted, threatened and abused need our continued support.

Tahir’s death has reminded me of why we do this. This time it was personal. The tragedy for him and for his family and colleagues is repeated somewhere almost every day. The international work which the Society does in this area is respected throughout the world. We have an ‘international action team’ of trained lawyers and law students who give their own time to research and draft letters of intervention on behalf of lawyers at risk.

It is not enough, but sometimes it is difficult to identify how much more we can usefully do. I know, though, from many conversations with threatened lawyers over the years that they appreciate the spotlight that such interventions shine on their plight. Their oppressors know that the world is watching – that there might be some sort of accountability at some stage if we are ignored.

Other projects are aimed at strengthening the capacity of lawyers who are threatened: providing them with better technical skills, building up their professional bar associations, making them more robust.

It is all about trying to create a space within which they can work and continue to defend the oppressed or pursue claims on their behalf in unpopular cases. A space in which to do their job as lawyers.

At a time when the profession is threatened from many sides, let us not forget that our duty to uphold the rule of law and protect fundamental freedoms includes an obligation to try to secure the protection of endangered lawyers everywhere. It is part of our vocation. Part of our calling. The debate about independent regulation has to respect that. A fiercely independent legal profession is not only necessary to hold our own state to account. It is also necessary to protect the rights of those within the international community of lawyers and human rights defenders who put themselves at risk as part of that shared vocation.

Tony Fisher is senior partner at Fisher Jones Greenwood and a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee