Law Society and Bar Council say attacking lawyers undermines the rule of law
Home Office deletes controversial Twitter post accusing “activist” immigration lawyers of disrupting the removal of migrants
01 September 2020
Immigration lawyers hit the headlines last week after a controversial post on the official Home Office Twitter account accused "activist lawyers" of delaying and disrupting the removal of migrants from the UK.
The tweet contained a short, captioned video animation, which was viewed over 1.6 million times before controversy over its content led to its deletion.
BBC News quoted the now-deleted Home Office video as saying: "We are working to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK. But currently return regulations are rigid and open to abuse... allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns."
Following a formal complaint by Professor Jonathan Portes of King's College London, Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, agreed that the phrase "activist lawyers" should not have been used.
The Guardian quoted Rycroft as responding to Portes: "The general point the video is making is that our efforts to facilitate legitimate and legal returns are often frustrated by individuals and lawyers putting in last-minute claims. These claims are very often entirely without merit, but have the effect of timing out a return due to stringent Dublin regulations.
"However, I agree that the phrase you quote should not have been used on an official government channel. I have made clear to the team that this post should not be used again from Home Office accounts or anywhere else by civil servants."
Professor Portes told the Guardian that the use of the phrase 'activist lawyers' was "way over the line", as civil servants were not allowed to use such polemical language.
Law Society president Simon Davis said that describing immigration lawyers who are upholding the law as 'activist lawyers' was "misleading and dangerous" and such attacks on the integrity of the legal profession "undermine the rule of law".
In a statement on the Law Society website, Davis continued: "In countries where lawyers are unable to do their job for fear of intimidation the rule of law is weakened. The consequences are a society that becomes less safe, less stable and less fair.
"Britain's standing internationally is underpinned by our reputation for democracy, fair play and the independence of our legal system. This independence hinges on lawyers and judges not being hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties and not being identified with their clients or their clients' causes."
The Bar Council called the tweet irresponsible and misleading.
Chair of the Bar Council, Amanda Pinto QC, said: "Irresponsible, misleading communications from the Government, around the job that lawyers do in the public interest, are extremely damaging to our society. Legal professionals who apply the law and follow Parliament's express intention, are not 'activists'. They are merely doing their jobs, enabling people to exercise their statutory rights and defend themselves against those in power. Without those lawyers, our system would crumble."
Pinto added: "The justice system provides a vital check and balance and should not be attacked for the sake of political point-scoring by the Government. We strongly condemn the use of divisive and deceptive language that undermines the rule of law and those working to uphold it."
In an article for the New Statesman, Doughty Street barrister Adam Wagner asked: "What is an 'activist lawyer'? It's difficult to say. My best guess is that the Home Office is referring to those who act in cases against the government, particularly in cases involving asylum, refugee and human rights law. The very worst of them, it seems, are those who succeed on behalf of their clients, for example by gaining a temporary reprieve while a court examines the legality of a decision. Effectively representing a client's rights has become a political position."
According to Wagner, the tweet is the latest in a number of attacks by illiberal voices in various Conservative-led governments seeking to water down the system of human rights laws and judicial review that effectively holds government to account and scrutinises bad decisions by the executive.
In a piece for inews.co.uk, Garden Court's Colin Yeo said: "Whether the attacks are against judges or on lawyers, they are really attacks on the law and on the rule of law. Judges do not make the law, they interpret and apply it. Lawyers do not make the law, they argue it on behalf of their clients. It is politicians who make the law. But when their competence and indeed their impotence is in danger of being exposed, it becomes convenient for them to find someone else to blame."
The Times quoted an unnamed Government source as saying: "There's a bunch of particularly loudmouthed lawyers and barristers who seem to spend more time on social media than representing their clients, who think even the mildest criticism of their profession will bring about the destruction of democracy. It's patently absurd and they'd be better off leaving this kind of hysterical ranting to Her Majesty's Opposition."
Adam Wagner said in response in his New Statesman article: "We will hear more of the same in the coming weeks and months. Lawyers will defend themselves, as they must. But we shouldn't allow the government to frame this important debate. Because this is not about me as a lawyer, doing a job for my client, but about all of us, as citizens in a democracy that respects the rule of law."