Government attacks on lawyers ‘undermine rule of law’, says country’s top judge

Government attacks on lawyers “undermine the rule of law”, the most senior judge in England and Wales has said.

Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice, told MPs that lawyers should not be criticised for “acting fearlessly” for their clients when he appeared in front of the Commons Justice Committee on Tuesday.

It comes after ministers accused “activist lawyers” of disrupting deportation attempts and 28-year-old Cavan Medlock was charged with a terrorist plot to kill a solicitor over his role in representing immigrants.

When committee chairman Bob Neill asked Lord Burnett, as head of the judiciary, for his thoughts on “comments made by members of the government about the role of lawyers within the justice system”, he replied: “The vitality and independence of the legal profession is an essential hallmark of a society governed by the rule of law.

“Lawyers have got a duty to act fearlessly for their clients, subject always to their overriding professional obligations and duties to the courts.

“They shouldn’t be subject to criticism for doing so.

“A general attack on the legal profession, in my view, undermines the rule of law.”

Recalling comments made by a predecessor Lord Irving, suggesting it was immature for government ministers to “boo” when they disagreed with the outcome of legal action, he added: “In my view that was a wise observation.”

Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon
Lord Burnett said individual failings should never “justify a general attack” on groups of lawyers (Aaron Chown/PA)

Good arguments put forward by lawyers will be “accepted by the court” while bad ones will not, Lord Burnett said.

He added: “None of this, of course, immunises the individual conduct of lawyers from criticism in appropriate circumstances. Of course not.

“Only a tiny minority of lawyers cross that line in individual cases.

“But identifiable individual failings, unfortunate though they are, do not begin to justify a general attack upon the integrity of groups of lawyers.”

Last month more than 800 former judges and senior legal figures signed a letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, calling on them to apologise for their “hostility” towards the profession.

The letter – which was backed by three former justices of the UK Supreme Court, three retired High Court judges, more than 80 QCs and hundreds of other lawyers – was in response to “recent attacks, made by the Home Secretary and echoed by the Prime Minister, on lawyers seeking to hold the Government to the law”.

In August, the Home Office was forced to abandon using a video which accuses “activist lawyers” representing migrants of trying to disrupt the asylum system after a barrage of complaints.

At the Conservative Party’s online conference in October, Mr Johnson ramped up the rhetoric in the battle between the Government and the justice system with his comments that the Tories were “stopping the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless – and rightly – call the lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders”.

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