The Bar Council chair has said he is ‘very uncomfortable’ with efforts to implement a public interest element into lawyers’ professional obligations.

Nick Vineall KC said the attempts by the International Bar Association to reconsider its approach were misguided and should be rejected.

In a blog on the Bar Council website, Vineall said several leaders of the continental European bars had raised concerns during the IBA’s recent summit in Helsinki at its ongoing project to examine the professional role of lawyers as 'ethical gatekeepers' within wider society.

He explained that any requirement on lawyers to consider the wider public interest before deciding whether to act was ‘deeply problematic’.

‘We need to hold fast to the fact that access to justice is an important touchstone,’ he said. ‘At least for contentious work, we should be very, very cautious indeed about subscribing to the lawyers as gatekeepers agenda, and, again at least for contentious work, we should firmly reject the idea that we should be imposing a public interest test on clients who wish us to advise and represent them.’

Vineall said the terminology of ‘gatekeeper’ was ‘to say the least unfortunate’, arguing that this suggested creating ways to close off access to justice.

He asked who was to act as the arbiter of the public interest and said there was difficulty in defining which types of work were deemed acceptable and which were not.

Writing further on Linkedin, Vineall added: ‘As lawyers we have important duties not to assist in the commission of unlawful activity by our clients. But I am very uncomfortable with the IBA’s suggestion that lawyers ought to be applying some sort of wider public interest test before we decide who to act for, at any rate in contentious matters.’

The IBA announced a year ago today that it wanted to examine the role of lawyers as ‘ethical gatekeepers’ within wider society and to help clarify the ethical responsibilities and obligations of practitioners.

The organisation suggested that some lawyers ‘hide behind and abuse some of the key principles of the profession, notably the protection provided by lawyer-client confidentiality, to shield and protect the ethically questionable (and at times criminal) behaviour of their clients’.

The argument over whether lawyers should operate under a wider public interest has intensified in recent weeks after more than 100 lawyers signed a so-called ‘declaration of conscience’ refusing to act for the fossil fuel industry.

A group calling itself Lawyers Are Responsible has also said its members would not be involved in any action against climate protestors.

The Law Society issued guidance in April advising firms to assess the impact on staff of their own stance on climate change, suggesting they may want to consider accommodating employees who identify commitment to the climate as a ‘recognised philosophical belief’ - and therefore a protected characteristic - under the Equalities Act.


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