In an ongoing debate around the UK’s “broken [asylum] system,” the Home Secretary Priti Patel has repeatedly hit out at immigration lawyers.
Over the last few months, both the Home Office and Patel have branded these lawyers “activists”. This was met with an outcry of backlash from the legal sector.
More recently, at the Conservative party conference, the MP for Witham called immigration lawyers “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers”. This concerning and harmful rhetoric was backed by Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson, who publicly accused these lawyers of impeding the criminal justice process.
Following the comments made by Patel back in September, an armed man entered a London law firm, and launched a knife attack on one of the firm’s staff. The “violent, racist” attack is said to have been “inspired” by Patel’s remarks.
With law firms facing threats of attack elsewhere in the UK, the Law Society, and the Bar Council, have both expressed concern at the risk posed to immigration lawyers. Calls are now being made for the government to retract its comments.
When it comes to immigration and human rights, the government has treated the legal profession with sustained hostility and contempt. From Home Office videos labelling immigration lawyers as “activists,” to the Home Secretary reinforcing this rhetoric on Twitter, there has been a concerted effort to demonise and ridicule lawyers.
Despite receiving backlash from the legal sector, Patel, and the PM launched further attacks on immigration lawyers. At the virtual Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary accused immigration lawyers of “defending” the “broken [asylum] system”. She then went on to label these lawyers as “lefty” and “do-gooders,” even roping them in with people traffickers.
Refusing to withdraw her comments, Patel doubled down by saying that backlash would not deter her: “If at times that means being unpopular on Twitter, I will bear it”. Adding to this she stated: “As Conservatives we don’t measure the depth of our compassion in 280 characters on Twitter, but in the actions we take and the choices we make”.
However, in terms of immigration policy and stance on asylum seekers, the Conservative Party’s actions and choices reflect the Home Secretary’s tweets. What has been revealed, unsurprisingly, is the party’s deep and concerning lack of compassion and empathy, and its disregard for the rule of law.
Echoing Patel’s disdain for immigration lawyers, in the PM’s keynote speech at the conference, he accused “the whole criminal justice system” of being “hamstrung by what the home secretary would doubtless – and rightly – call the lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders”. This statement was made on the same day that the Law Society warned that lawyers were at risk of physical attack if politicians continued their onslaught of “insults”.
Commenting on this repeated attack line, Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy called the PM’s remarks “utterly shameful”. Meanwhile, Law Society president Simon Davis, highlighted the potentially dangerous nature of the government’s remarks: “This divisive language serves nobody and puts lawyers and their clients at risk”. He added: “All solicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by parliament. Legal rights cannot be rewritten through rhetoric”.
The consequences of this anti-lawyer rhetoric have unfortunately already been felt. Days after Priti Patel’s original comments, on 7 September, a man entered an unnamed law firm with a knife.
The 28-year-old proceeded to commit a “violent, racist” attack on those within the office, assaulting and wounding the firm’s receptionist. Allegedly far-right literature and a confederate flag were also found to be in his possession at the time of the incident.
In a letter seen by The Observer and sent to the Law Society, those at the law firm attributed the attack to the Home Secretary’s comments, claiming her rhetoric inspired the racist violence: “Responsibility and accountability for this attack, in the eyes of this firm, lies squarely at the feet of Priti Patel”.
In the letter, the law firm asked the association to challenge Patel, the lord chancellor and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ,) on the attack, and appealed to them to “ensure that public attacks on the legal profession are prevented from this point forth”.
Further to this, the letter stated: “It must be ensured that no further lives are endangered as a result of her untruthful and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. Put simply, this must stop now, before innocent lives are taken and other irreparable damage is done to those who work in this field”.
It added: “This must involve all previous statements made by Priti Patel being publicly retracted, and an apology or acknowledgment that such action to date has been inappropriate. Urgent reassurance is required from the government that this will not be repeated. The position as it stands is untenable, dangerous, and cannot be allowed to persist”.
Troubled over the safety of UK lawyers, and disturbed about the attacks on the rule of law, many from within the legal sector have retaliated against the Home Secretary and PM’s attacks.
Speaking to The Guardian, Law Society President Simon Davis underlined the seriousness of the situation. He said: “We are extremely concerned about the safety of solicitors and barristers in the current climate, firms that deal in emotive issues such as immigration are being targeted”.
He added: “We are monitoring the situation closely and urge both government and media to be mindful of the rhetoric they employ. The role of solicitors is to apply and uphold the laws set down by parliament and they have a right to do so on behalf of their clients without intimidation”.
Meanwhile, on Friday 9 October, Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, wrote a letter to the PM urging him to withdraw his comments: “Far from the criminal justice system being ‘hamstrung’ by lawyers, the backlog of cases, extreme delays, crumbling court estate and shockingly underpaid practitioners are a direct result of chronic underfunding by successive governments. It is the continual lack of investment that hamstrings the system and prevents many members of the public from accessing effective justice”.
She added: “The government cannot remain committed to [the rule of law] by attacking those who put it into action every day. I urge you to withdraw your comments and to reassure thousands of key workers – including lawyers employed by your own government – that they are not being attacked by their prime minister for their important contribution to the justice system”.
Elsewhere, in an open letter to the PM and Home Secretary Roddy Dunlop QC, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates Scottish lawyers, called their words, “simply unconscionable”. Reflecting on what he called “unhelpful language,” Dunlop added: “In a climate of increasing populism, this sort of rhetoric is not only facile and offensive – it is potentially harmful”.
At the time of writing, the government has remained silent on the alleged knife attack. Additionally, neither the Home Secretary or the PM has retracted any of their comments about lawyers and the legal sector.