Top UK Lawyer Criticizes ‘Authoritarian’ Attacks on Legal Profession

Leading British lawyer Helena Kennedy KC has drawn parallels between the UK government’s actions against the legal profession and tactics employed by authoritarian regimes. Kennedy, a prominent criminal lawyer and Labour peer, accused ministers of deliberately targeting lawyers as scapegoats.

Speaking in her role as the president of council at the law reform and human rights charity Justice, ahead of the publication of its report on threats to the rule of law, Kennedy emphasized that the report’s findings were not politically motivated. She highlighted that concerns regarding the rule of law were bipartisan, referencing her clashes with the Labour Party during its time in power, particularly regarding detention without trial.

Top UK Lawyer Criticizes ‘Authoritarian’ Attacks on Legal Profession

Kennedy noted that lawyers come under attack in authoritarian regimes as a primary target. She said, “The first thing that authoritarians do is they go after judges that make decisions that they don’t like. They go after journalists, they go after any of their critics, whether it’s [Alexei] Navalny (in Russia) or it’s in Turkey or in Iran, they go after lawyers and they end up jailing lawyers and undermining public confidence in lawyers. And so we should recognize that as one part of the story of how law is undermined and respect for law is undermined. It’s about denying accountability.”

Justice’s report, published on Monday, highlights a noticeable trend in the UK over the past five years, with derogatory terms such as “lefty lawyer” and “activist lawyer” being increasingly used. The report cites instances like the government’s response to losing two Brexit cases and ministers’ comments on lawyers challenging immigration policies, including the recent Conservative party dossier on Jacqueline McKenzie, which was shared with the media.

Top UK Lawyer Criticizes ‘Authoritarian’ Attacks on Legal Profession

Kennedy argued that undermining respect for the law by labeling lawyers as “lefty lawyers” representing asylum seekers or individuals with immigration issues was detrimental to the rule of law. She stated, “We don’t want the courts to be the place in which only the wealthy can enjoy justice. What we’re seeing in the insults and abuses of our judiciary – that unelected judges are making decisions – we want unelected judges at one stage removed to be able to make judgments about what is right and what is the appropriate use of power and about who is abusing it and who are abusers of the rules of our society.”

The report also addresses concerns about the UK’s highest court, suggesting that it may have appeared influenced by ministerial pressure, even if it was coincidental.

Kennedy, known for her advocacy for women’s rights, commented on the treatment of Jacqueline McKenzie, stating that women often faced these attacks because they worked in areas that were inadequately funded and required emotional literacy, making them vulnerable to criticism.

Among its recommendations to protect the rule of law, the report calls on the government to safeguard judicial independence and the legal profession while rejecting the use of inflammatory language against them.

Kennedy emphasized that concerns about attacks on lawyers were shared across the political spectrum and not limited to “lefty lawyers.” A Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated that every individual was entitled to representation regardless of their case or cause and emphasized that no lawyer should suffer harassment or abuse for fulfilling their professional duties.

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