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Don’t call us ‘lefty’
Lawyers ‘gravely concerned’ at attack by Conservatives
The leaders of the legal profession in England and Wales have said lawyers are “gravely concerned” by reports that the Conservative party shared a dossier of information about a senior solicitor with newspaper correspondents.
Jacqueline McKenzie, a partner at Leigh Day and the firm’s head of immigration and asylum law, told the Guardian she had been approached last Saturday by reporters from the Express, the Mail the Sun and the Telegraph. Two of the journalists explained that they had received a dossier about her from Conservative Campaign Headquarters “which had either deliberately or inadvertently been attached to an email”.
At first, she thought this was about her support for victims of the Windrush scandal, when she had numerous meetings with Home Office officials. Not at all. It was about her work as an immigration and asylum lawyer, as she explained in yesterday’s Guardian:
There was mention of a case in which I represented a Jamaican man who had lived in the UK from the age of nine and was facing deportation. It said that I was a hired adviser on race to [Keir] Starmer, when in fact I am an unpaid volunteer on a working group set up by Labour to look at race disparities across a number of indicators, just as the Conservatives did with the Sewell report.
It also “outed” me as a trustee of Detention Action, a well-respected NGO supporting people in immigration detention centres, presumably because the organisation challenged the Rwanda scheme in the courts. The dossier did not mention that I had become a trustee after that challenge.
I did represent a man who was one of seven shackled on the tarmac waiting to be flown to Rwanda before the flight was grounded by the courts. I feel no shame: a doctor in the immigration detention centre confirmed that my client displayed signs of being a victim of torture.
The dossier was covered at length in the Telegraph on Sunday. “A key member of Labour’s race equality task force is a top asylum lawyer who boasted of blocking a client’s deportation to Rwanda,” it said.
The Sun also reported on Sunday that “a senior lawyer leading efforts to block the Rwanda move also served as a race adviser to Labour”.
McKenzie wrote yesterday:
The hit job on me was vile and self-serving, and put me and those close to me at considerable risk of physical harm. I’m having to take security advice and precautions, such is the seriousness I place on ominous emails I have received…
The positive, however, is that millions of people in the UK see the behaviour of this arm of the ruling party as unacceptable. Judging by the vast amount of support I’ve received, not only from friends and colleagues, but from many strangers too, this government hit job has spectacularly backfired.
In a joint statement yesterday, Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council, and Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society, said the legal community was gravely concerned by what McKenzie had experienced.
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.
That is why — as we have said repeatedly — it is wrong to describe lawyers as “lefty” or “activist” simply on the basis of the causes they advocate on behalf of their clients.
Lawyers who represent their clients are not only doing nothing wrong, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in playing their part in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld. Ms McKenzie has been doing exactly what she is supposed to do as an immigration solicitor, acting in the best interests of her clients within the constraints of the law.
Political leaders know that lawyers represent their clients within the legal framework that parliament creates and Conservative Campaign Headquarters should seriously reflect on what has happened in this case. Language and actions that unfairly undermine confidence in the independence of the legal professions, and potentially risk the safety of lawyers, will ultimately undermine confidence in our entire justice system and the rule of law.
On Tuesday, the justice secretary was asked by Nick Robinson on the BBC Today programme whether he regarded the legal advisers who had acted for asylum-seekers as “lefty lawyers”. Alex Chalk replied:
The strong tradition of lawyers in this country is that you simply act for your client without fear or favour. You don’t necessarily associate yourself with that cause.
But I think it is fair to point out that, in the last 10 years, there has been a growing and I think regrettable trend for lawyers to actively parade their politics and to identify more with their clients.
If they can avoid that they should avoid it. It’s much better, I think, for lawyers, in the main, to keep their politics to themselves and to simply do their job on behalf of their clients. But some seem to be much more willing and indeed almost enthusiastic about parading their political opposition. I think that’s a mistake.
Chalk has produced no evidence to support his thesis. I have not noticed any such change myself over the past 10 years. Plenty of lawyers acted for the trade unions and others who challenged the policies of governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But they were not accused of identifying with their clients.
It is, of course, entirely proper for Chalk himself to parade his own politics: though he a lawyer, he is not acting for a client. But we don’t have to look very far to find a lawyer who identified so closely with her client that her legal advice was open to doubt.
Suella Braverman was replaced as attorney general by an MP who understands that her advice to colleagues carries more weight if it comes from someone with a lower political profile. As Victoria Prentis said last month, “I am lawyer first and a politician second.”
The bar’s cab-rank rule is a valuable shield for barristers who represent unpopular clients. Lord Pannick KC has defended successive home secretaries against legal challenges to their Rwanda policy while opposing their legislation in the House of Lords.
But that principle has never applied to solicitors, particularly in the areas of crime and immigration. Although some solicitors in private practice may take a day’s cases in the magistrates’ court for the the Crown Prosecution Service or act in well-funded private prosecutions, the vast majority of criminal solicitors do defence work.
Because the Home Office sends its own presenting officers to represent it in the immigration tribunal and is advised by its own in-house lawyers and the Government Legal Department, it is inevitable that law firms working in the field of immigration and asylum will represent immigrants and asylum-seekers.
And when senior Conservatives tell asylum-seekers in blunt language to go back to France, it should come as no surprise that lawyers are willing to take the other side in public debate.
There is nothing wrong with lawyers in private practice associating themselves with a political party. The Society of Conservative Lawyers has provided the present government with a steady stream of ministers in the House of Lords. The Society of Labour Lawyers is currently working on policies that could be adopted by a future government.
We don’t know whether Chalk’s remarks on Tuesday were intended as a specific response to his party’s attack on McKenzie. It would be comforting to think that sending reporters a dossier about her was just another of the inadvertent data breaches we have been reading about this week.
But that seems unlikely. As the barristers’ and solicitors’ leaders rightly say, lawyers should not be criticised or made the subject of a targeted campaign simply for doing their job.
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