The UK is now a country that works for everyone – except me. And if you are a lawyer, it might not work for you either.
I have never before felt excluded by a previous government’s vision of the future, but this prime minister excludes me. She tells me that those who are Leavers showed ‘typically British quiet resolve’ in casting their vote (note the ‘typically British’). I suppose I showed ‘typically foreign excitability’ in voting Remain, and so don’t really belong here.
It is her views on lawyers, though, which should worry us all: ‘We will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s armed forces’. I am not going to delve into the ins and outs of the cases which are currently being investigated. They don’t really matter to the point I want to make. The crucial words in the sentence are ‘harangue and harass’.
It is rare, maybe unheard of, for a prime minister to mention lawyers, let alone attack them so strongly, in the main political speech he or she makes in a year.
And, maybe as she hoped, it is already paying dividends. Just a few days later, the Mail on Sunday led with ‘Vulture lawyers bleed the NHS for £418m’. ‘Their sickening fees in one year are enough to hire 19,000 nurses’. We are presumably not here talking about activist, left-wing human rights lawyers any more – of course, that is the only kind who would agree to sue the army – but even lawyers who might vote Tory.
If you scroll to the bottom of the article, you will see that the Society of Clinical Injury Lawyers has valiantly pointed out the facts: the £418m includes payments on account for the next year, the real figure is £279m, the average cost of cases fell in the last year, and the rise of £30m over the last year is accounted for by the higher number of cases. This is a long-running political dispute about the cost of medical negligence within the NHS, involving complex factors not at all reflected in the simplistic headline. Again, the detailed ins and outs are not the point I am trying to make.
We lawyers are now harassers and haranguers, and we are characterised as such by a powerful opponent in a significant percentage of our civil litigation and all of our criminal work. In fact, it is part of a litigation strategy by one party in a dispute to disparage the representative of the other. The prime minister sheds crocodile tears for the victims of globalisation, but sets the dogs on those representing the victims of the nation state she now leads.
I know it is not fashionable to quote anything but typically quiet British principles these days. Put my tendency to the contrary down to the same foreign excitability which led me to vote Remain. But the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers have two clauses which cover these situations. They were mentioned in passing in the Law Society’s statement after the speech (which did not actually refer to the prime minister or her speech at all). They deserve to be quoted in full:
‘16. Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference’; and
‘18. Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.’
The prime minister also said that this was our generation’s moment to ‘take back control and shape our future … here in Britain’. So I imagine that we will soon have a referendum as to whether we should pull out of the United Nations.
Regarding lawyers, I also found it annoying that the prime minister, having attacked lawyers earlier, said that now was ‘the time to forge a bold, new, confident role for ourselves on the world stage’. It is a curious fact, maybe worth exploring by someone really interested in the effect of the EU on our global trade, that over the entire 40-year period covered by our membership, the UK legal profession has succeeded in forging just such a bold and confident role for itself. The EU has had no negative impact on our capacity to do that, and has doubtless helped.
What a shame that a prime minister, in setting out her stall, chose to attack us so thoughtlessly under the general umbrella of sentiments which pretended that she would govern for everyone. Everyone obviously does not cover those who cross her narrow take on nation-statism.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs