UK government ministers face increasing condemnation for verbal attacks on the legal profession in the aftermath of an alleged terrorism incident at a London firm.
In early September 2020, a member of the public allegedly threatened to kill a lawyer at a law firm’s office in Harrow. He has been charged with preparing terrorist acts, among other charges that include actual bodily harm, making a threat to kill, and a racially-aggravated public order offence. At the charging hearing, prosecutors alleged the motivation was connected to ‘the firm’s involvement in preventing the government from deporting people’. The man charged has yet to enter a plea.
Days before the incident, Home Secretary Priti Patel had tweeted to complain that Home Office ‘removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers’, despite the Home Office being condemned for a video using the same language only days earlier. The Law Society of England and Wales had criticised the ‘dangerous and misleading’ video that claimed government attempts to remove ‘migrants with no right to remain in the UK’ were blocked by ‘activist lawyers’ delaying and disrupting returns by ‘abus[ing]’ return regulations.
The video was removed from circulation and replaced with one that does not reference ‘activist lawyers’, but the Home Secretary continues to use the phrase.
Philip Rodney, former Member of the IBA Senior Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board, tells Global Insight that he finds it ‘breath-taking that a government channel should seek to disparage as “activists” lawyers who work within the limits of the law to uphold the rights of those whom they represent. The ability to scrutinise executive powers and protect the interests of our clients is an essential part of the rule of law’.
He suggests that government attacks on lawyers, though alarmingly common in autocratic countries around the world, are unprecedented in the United Kingdom: ‘I can’t recall in more than 40 years of practice seeing that sort of language being used by government in an attempt to discredit lawyers who are just doing their jobs’.
Although concerns were raised about the connection between ministers’ language and the incident in the aftermath of the alleged attack, ministers have continued to politicise the work of lawyers representing asylum seekers.