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  • Writer's pictureSarah Henry

UK: Defending lawyers against the government continues

Sarah Henry


Activist Lawyer Podcast Host and Manager


The Law Society and Bar Council have had to weigh in again. In a recent joint statement, the Chair of the Bar Council Nick Vineall KC and the President of the Law Society, Lubna Shuja condemned the ongoing attacks on lawyers by politicians and the media in the UK:


“No lawyer should be criticised, or made the subject of a targeted campaign, for doing their job. Everyone is entitled to legal representation, and it is a United Nations basic principle that lawyers should not be identified with the causes of their clients as a result of representing them.’’


The response followed the deliberate targeting of immigration solicitor Ms Jacqueline McKenzie from the law firm Leigh Day after Conservative Campaign Headquarters sent a brief to the press criticising Ms McKenzie and singling her out based on the type of work she does, primarily human rights and immigration law. The intrusive critique and exposure of Ms McKenzie was an extremely personal and targeted effort by the government which shockingly, or not as the case may be, resulted in horrendous abuse and threats made against the lawyer. This is not an isolated incident and serves to highlight the extent to which a political party in the UK will go to in order to marginalise and vilify lawyers to serve their own agenda. This isn’t the first time the Law Society and the Bar Council as well as other professional representative bodies have had to call the government out on their behaviour which has been ongoing for several years.


Comments made by the Prime Minister himself, according to the Bar Council statement had previously betrayed ‘a startling and regrettable ignorance about the role of lawyers in society,’ following Rishi Sunak’s criticism of the Labour Leader, Kier Starmer for being a ‘lefty lawyer’ for ‘standing in the way’ of his Rwanda deportation deal. Indeed, Starmer himself is facing pressure to do more to defend the legal profession against attacks and targeted campaigns orchestrated by the Conservative Party. Martin Forde KC, the barrister appointed by Keir Starmer to investigate the culture within the Labour party commented that those within the profession have expressed their bewilderment at the lack of action taken by the leader of the opposition, a lawyer himself, following the incident experienced by Ms McKenzie.


It has been said many times, that such smears and attempts to marginalise, belittle and even demonise lawyers constitute a fundamental attack on the rule of law and if anyone within the profession challenges the government, albeit through their work and the clients they represent, they are in the firing line and open to public abuse and attacks, often supported by various factions of the media.


But where does it end? The murky world of politics unfolds daily citing tales of corruption, sleaze with one scandal after another but to drag lawyers into what can only be described as a vicious and deliberate campaign to serve their own agenda is playing with fire and poses a real threat to individual lawyers who continue to do their job. If we stop and think about the whole premise upon which the rule of law stands, particularly in a democracy which prides itself on its historical institutions and law-making traditions, everyone is accountable to the same laws – lawmakers and leaders! Think now of where we currently stand. It is a shameful situation that solicitors, barristers and judges find themselves in whereby, if they act to ensure that justice is upheld, or that the most vulnerable in society have representation or that the government is challenged where it seeks to break laws that it is supposed to uphold, they are publicly and even personally attacked. The fact that the Law Society and others continuously reiterate the same call of action to the government speaks volumes as ministers, and the media, seek to demonise lawyers as ‘the enemies of the people.’ And while history will show that the legal profession is no stranger to public ‘bashing’, (even literature and the arts has taken a grim view toward lawyers and the profession) we are living in unprecedented times where it has become commonplace and part of government strategy to use inflammatory and dangerous language aimed at lawyers. As an immigration lawyer myself, I am sadly familiar with the abuse directed at practitioners across the UK and Ireland as they work hard to represent their clients. It is vital that our colleagues feel supported as they continue their work and that the those in positions of power are held to account when they invoke such inflammatory language and instigate attacks against the profession.


Those familiar with this platform, will be familiar with our podcast. The Activist Lawyer podcast started life as a space for lawyers working within human rights and public law to share their work and to demonstrate the importance of impartial legal representation of their clients who are often extremely vulnerable. The title of the podcast is no coincidence as the first season launched after former UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel published her attacks on ‘activist lawyers.’ Some of our guests have been directly impacted by derogatory language used by ministers against them or indeed indirectly as they share their views with listeners on how attacks on the profession are damaging both to clients and legal representatives. Of note, when we interview lawyers it is often their observation that while we have grown accustomed to the government and media seeking to marginalise vulnerable members of our community, like asylum seekers, such isolation now extends to solicitors and barristers also. Podcast listeners are always impressed by the work lawyers undertake on a day to day basis, whether they act on historical abuse cases, legacy cases related to the conflict in Northern Ireland or immigration law which is often emotionally draining, intense, complicated and often underpaid.


As we continue to showcase the work of human rights lawyers on our podcast, we stand in solidarity with all lawyers carrying out their job in the face of such adversity. We commend those within the profession who should never be deterred by this enduring damaging narrative espoused by the government and others but should continue to proudly represent their clients and their profession.


The Activist Lawyer podcast can be downloaded here.




Sarah Henry is the podcast host and manager of the Activist Lawyer platform. She worked as an immigration and human rights solicitor in Dublin, Belfast and Newry. She is on the board of directors of Women’s Aid Armagh Down.

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