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‘Proud’ human rights lawyers accuse May of ‘ignorance’

Tory attacks on legal profession continue as prime minister criticises ‘harassment’ of British troops

6 October 2016

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The prime minister, Theresa May, has lashed out at ‘left-wing, activist’ lawyers who ‘harangue’ British troops under human rights laws.

Attacking lawyers has been a theme at this month’s Tory conference, with the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, and the secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, both giving verbal broadsides to those ‘abusing’ the legal system by bringing ‘vexatious claims’ against the armed forces.

Under new government proposals, the UK would derogate from elements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before British troops enter future conflicts abroad. Other countries that have taken this route include Ukraine in June 2015 during its border conflict with Russia, France in November 2015 following the terrorist attacks in Paris, and Turkey in July 2016 following the unsuccessful coup by sections of the nation’s military.

To wild applause, the prime minister, who was giving her second speech to Conservative members in Birmingham, said: ‘We will never again in any future conflict let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave, the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.’

May’s comments drew swift criticism from the profession, however. Mark George QC, the Garden Court North silk involved in the landmark inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, said he was ‘proud to be a “left-wing human rights lawyer”’, and, having fought to obtain justice for his clients for nearly 40 years, he was ‘not about to give up’ following the prime minister’s speech.

‘It was a bunch of left-wing human rights lawyers that helped deliver justice for the Hillsborough 96 [and their] families. [I] don’t recall May complaining,’ he added. ‘[She] wasn’t complaining when we helped to get justice for Hillsborough families, funded by her office as it happens.’

Another barrister, Alison Gurden, also said she was proud to wear the prime minister’s smear: ‘I’m a “left-wing human rights” lawyer. I don’t harass, but I do fight for clients against state mistreatment and I’ll continue to do so.’

Writing in to the Independent, Geoffrey Robertson QC said the Tory leader’s rhetoric was ‘ignorant’ and that lawyers ‘do not harass the brave – they call for the prosecutions of those cowardly soldiers who kill their prisoners and torture or murder civilians’.

The former United Nations appeals judge accused the prime minister of ‘disgracefully’ attempting to cover up war crimes committed by British troops.

Richard Clayton QC said the government’s proposals were ‘certainly feasible’ but they would only cover future wars and have no impact on the Iraq war claims already brought.

‘It is also important to appreciate that the government has been obliged to pay out numerous compensation claims because those claims were justified – so it is not accurate to characterise them as an “industry of vexatious claims”, said the Kings Chambers silk.

‘Furthermore, some of the claims are brought by serving soldiers who failed to be provided with proper equipment, so it is also inaccurate for the government to claim that the impact on serving soldiers is only negative. Consequently, the government spin to the effect that the claims are all bad news for the military is fundamentally incorrect.’

Responding to May’s speech on social media, Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG, a charity supporting LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, said: ‘I’ve represented human rights lawyers and activists abused in their own countries and forced to flee. Theresa May’s words were chilling.’

Meanwhile, former government lawyer Carl Gardner asked: ‘If May’s so against the human rights foe, why’s she ditched her plan to withdraw from the ECHR? Where’s her British Bill of Rights?’

Also wading in, FT columnist and Preiskel & Co solicitor David Allen Green remarked: ‘At least Theresa May now blaming human rights lawyers for legal reversals instead of blaming cats is some kind of improvement.’

The Law Society also entered the fray, with its president, Robert Bourns, commenting: ‘Human rights are universal and many countries look to the UK as an example of a fair society where the rule of law and respect for human rights are integral to the national identity.

‘Moreover, Britain’s standing internationally and as a jurisdiction of choice is underpinned by the independence of the judiciary and legal profession. This independence hinges on their not being hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties, nor being identified with their clients or clients’ causes. This principle is set out in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.’

The TLT partner continued: ‘In jurisdictions where lawyers are unable to carry out their legitimate professional duties for fear of intimidation, arrest, or detention, they cannot properly uphold the rule of law or effectively represent their clients.

‘The right to access to justice for all depends on everyone being represented within our framework of laws, no matter how they or their case may be perceived by the public, media, or government.’

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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