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A hostile environment for immigration lawyers

Written by
Katie Newbury
Date of Publication:
12 October 2020

I sometimes joke that I dread telling people what I do for a living. I am of course immensely proud of my work as an immigration lawyer, but the mere mention of immigration can invite less than positive responses. I have found myself defending immigration and correcting a lot of misinformation in late night black cabs, after bumping into neighbours while taking the rubbish out and at family barbecues.

While these conversations can be frustrating, I have never felt unsafe by declaring the nature of my work before. The warning, this week, from the Law Society that the most recent government attacks 'put lawyers and their clients at risk' casts a whole new, and very disturbing, light on my heretofore jokey reluctance to share details of my job.

The political attacks on immigration lawyers are not new. In Theresa May's Conservative party conference speech five years ago, she warned immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers against standing against her reforms of immigration law. She concluded, 'There are people who need our help, and there are people who are abusing our goodwill – and I know whose side I'm on'.

The idea that lawyers properly representing their clients' legal interests are somehow abusing the system is a theme which this Government has now decided to further promulgate. In her conference speech this past weekend, Priti Patel didn't pull any punches. Concluding a speech full of legally unworkable proposals which showed a disappointing ignorance of asylum law and policy, she had the following to say:

And no doubt those who are well rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights…..

And for those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party – they are defending the indefensible…

As if it was not concerning enough to have the Home Secretary mention lawyers and human traffickers in the same breath, the Prime Minister endorsed her comments in his conference speech, taking the opportunity to blame 'human rights lawyers and other do-gooders' for any efforts to constrain reform to the justice system.

Both sets of comments follow this summer's Home Office video criticising 'activist lawyers'.

These incendiary remarks are not being made in a vacuum. They are being made in world where the conspiracy theory is king, where social media amplifies division and where dangerous rhetoric can lead to violence. The Law Society has even stepped in to warn the Government against seeking to undermine the rule of law.

Theresa May's anti-immigration speech in 2015 was a celebration of the hostile environment she had been instrumental in implementing. Her warnings against legal interventions sound particularly chilling with hindsight as the scale of disaster that same hostile environment ushered in for the Windrush Generation is now evident. While exceptional journalism was clearly key to the exposure of the Windrush scandal, the hard work of lawyers has also been critical in helping individuals obtain justice and helping to challenge the framework which facilitated such a disaster in the first place.

I feel strongly that the immigration lawyer community must do all we can to protect and preserve that important role we must continue to play going forward. Although not all immigration lawyers are regularly engaged in asylum and deportation work, we must all take a stand to ensure that the principle of what we do and the rule of law deserves and receives public and political respect.

Priti Patel's remarks followed a week in which she had simultaneously tried to convince us the lessons of Windrush had been learned while her department leaked details of deeply concerning proposals to stop channel crossings. Policies which were described by a Whitehall source as part of a push to 'radically beef-up the hostile environment' following the end of the Brexit transition in 2021.

This seems somewhat at odds with her response to the Windrush Lessons Learned Review where she pledged to deliver cultural shift in the Home Office.

This context is important because while the Government's words about lawyers in recent days can be seen as deliberate and potentially dangerous, they form part of a much bigger effort to use rhetoric and emphasise narratives which paint people fleeing for their lives as a threat. It is concerning when there are continued attempts to dehumanise migrants and to enact a policy of hostility which is neither humane nor effective in actually addressing the immigration issues the Government wants to tackle.

Much change is on the horizon in the world of immigration law with the end of free movement, a new immigration system and, apparently, a review of the asylum system. In order to make this a successful transition, it is critical that the Home Office and the Government engage with immigration lawyers, rather than denigrate them. This is something they have significant experience with on the business immigration side but that same respect and stakeholder engagement would be welcome and is needed in all interactions with immigration lawyers. Until that is the case, lawyers like myself must continue to call out this dangerous and divisive language.