The government’s lawyer-bashing contrasts sharply with its appeasement of disgraced bankers and media groups.
I am sure that David Cameron, if accused of bullying, would give one of his sincere-voiced, customer-service homilies on how his government is determined to stamp it out.
But if you compare the treatment given by his government to the politically strong banks and financial institutions on the one hand, to what is dished out to the more politically weak lawyers on the other, you can draw your own conclusions. There is plenty of evidence.
First, along with mounting a challenge against the cap on bankers’ bonuses, the government has opposed the EU’s Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). It went so far as to bring a legal challenge against it at the Court of Justice of the European Union, which it lost. Of course, the government says it is in favour of an FTT, but only if it is introduced globally, knowing full well that that will never happen due to the opposition of the US.
Its grounds of opposition are that it will affect the competitiveness of the City.
That has not stopped the justice secretary from announcing his proposal for a levy on City law firms to help fund the justice system – despite the effect this would have on the competitiveness of UK law firms in providing legal services, and in the use of English law as the law of choice.
Then there is more obvious bullying. The chancellor has been signalling for months that the time for banker-bashing is over (‘banker-bashing’ is the Orwellian for pointing out that they have indulged in long-term, mass criminal behaviour). For instance, the contract of the last chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was not renewed by the chancellor, allegedly on the grounds that the banks found him too tough.
And what about lawyer-bashing? The most recent round of abuse against lawyers was unleashed by the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, who attacked ‘ambulance-chasing law firms’ which are inhibiting the ‘operational effectiveness of our troops’, because of human rights cases brought by Iraqis claiming that they were ill-used by British troops.
There is more obvious bullying
As he must have known and maybe calculated, the hounds in the press have joined the hunt with vigour. The Daily Mail’s headlines - continuing even this week - speak for the whole gang doing the government’s work: ‘End witch-hunt of our soldiers: Fury as ‘ambulance-chasing’ lawyers try to prosecute UK’s Iraq heroes – and are handed taxpayers’ millions to do it’ or ‘Corbyn’s new defence chief parties with boss of law firm hounding our troops over their role in the Iraq War’ after Emily Thornberry was snapped at Leigh Day’s Christmas party.
(We must not forget that, while whipping up the mob against lawyers, the government has appeased the newspapers, with the apparent intention not to pursue part two of the Leveson inquiry, which was supposed to look at the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within certain media organisations, and how the police investigated it.)
Finally, we come to the announcement in the last few days that the FCA will not proceed with its report into banking culture, which was meant to examine the extent to which pay, promotion and other incentives contributed to the many wrongdoings of the past (Libor, PPI and so on). Instead, the FCA will meet with individual banks on their own to discuss the issue. Commentators believes that this is under pressure from the Treasury.
This is the same Treasury, with really no role in legal services, which has - more or less at the same time as the FCA called off its inquiry into banking culture - intervened in the legal services market. Its recent paper A better deal: boosting competition to bring down bills for families and firms calls for a ‘fairer, more balanced regulatory regime’. For lawyers I see, and not for bankers?
Flashman. Miss Trunchbull. Draco Malfoy. This government can be added to that distinguished list: appease the strong, bully the weak.
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