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Attacks on lawyers: politicians should know better

Sam Townend KC, Chair

Sam Townend KC, Chair | Bar Council

3 min read Partner content

The ‘Better Call Keir’ meme published by CCHQ, and taken up in some newspapers, is just the latest in a round of lawyer-baiting that now sadly seems a regular part of pre-election tussles focussed on the Leader of the Opposition’s professional past as a practising barrister.

There are some reports that Labour has fought back by referring to Mr Starmer as having brought the first prosecution case against Al Qaeda. Both electoral soundbites are based on a misconception that lawyers are to be linked with, and to be criticised (or praised) for the moral character and causes of their clients.  

Don’t get me wrong, lawyers and the law are not above public scrutiny. As the late Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham put it in his seminal book ‘The Rule of Law’, “none of this requires any of us to swoon in adulation of the law, let alone lawyers.” As with any other senior public official, Mr Starmer’s record in administration as the Director of Public Prosecutions in leading the Crown Prosecution Service is perfectly proper terrain for examination. Additionally, where lawyers have committed misconduct, even grossly so, as may well be the case in the horrific miscarriages of justice in relation to the Post Office Horizon scandal – currently the subject of the judicially led public inquiry – then they should be disciplined and sanctioned.

There is a world of difference, though, between the failings of the lawyer themselves and those of their clients. The two should not be confused and the lawyer should not be vilified for the sins of their clients. It is not appropriate to trawl through a barrister’s case history to pick out unsympathetic clients or causes that they have advised or acted on and to hold the barrister responsible for the behaviour of that client or the outcome of a case. That is to wholly misunderstand the role of a barrister in our system. 

There are two relevant points. First, the well understood ‘cab rank’ rule, like London’s black cabs a barrister must take the next brief that comes along. This is of domestic application and, therefore, may not have applied in the case of Mr Starmer’s instruction to advise Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany. Secondly, however, these attacks are contrary to the fundamental understanding of the role of a lawyer of universal application throughout all the parts of the world that adhere to the Rule of Law: that lawyers are not their clients, nor are to be treated as such. This is reflected in the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which says, “Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.” Were this not the case, of course, it would be very hard for the justice system to function as lawyers would flee from representing alleged murderers, rapists, plutocrats and asylum seekers, for fear of being associated with, and treated as, them.

Even in the UK, lawyers have been threatened and attacked, some physically, because of the clients they were representing. The current febrile atmosphere enhances the risks of this happening again. It is, therefore, incumbent on all of us and most particularly on our political leaders, including the lawyers on both front benches, who really should know better, to cease all attacks on lawyers for just doing their job and to publicly deprecate those attacks instead of standing by. Surely we can do better than this? 

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