A recent attack on ‘activist lawyers’ by the Home Office has sparked a backlash across social media platforms. A short video, posted from the Home Office Twitter account, accused current EU regulations of ‘allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns’ of migrants with no right to remain in the UK. The video was taken down following anger and complaints from across the legal sector, before going on to imply that post-Brexit regulations would inhibit legal challenge to decisions to deport by a significant degree. The video followed a statement by Priti Patel accusing ‘leftie Labour-supporting lawyers’ of exploiting the asylum system.
In response, multiple lawyers active on twitter, including anonymous legal blogger and bestselling author The Secret Barrister, changed their twitter handles to include the phrase ‘activist lawyer’. Some highlighted what they saw to be the absurdity of the term, with Doughty Street’s Adam Wagner pointing out in a Twitter thread that: ‘For this government an “activist lawyer” means a lawyer who help[s] people challenge it when it breaks the law. In other words, a good lawyer.’ Many however expressed their concern at the government’s apparent disregard for the rule of law. Both the Bar Council and the Law Society released statements criticising the Home Office’s language, with Law Society president Simon Davis maintaining that ‘We should be proud to live in a country where legal rights cannot be overridden without due process.’
Abigail Evans, a solicitor at Bindmans solicitros, called the language used in the video ‘inflammatory and misleading’. ‘The “us v them” mentality is very worrying, reminiscent as it is of populist leaders using such rhetoric to stir up hate and dissent,’ she wrote. ‘The attempt to demonize and undermine legal professionals doing their job is a disturbing indication of a disregard for the rule of law at the heart of government. The term “activist lawyer” has been used derogatively but in my view, it is an epithet that we should embrace, as activists standing for the rule of law for all.
The Home Office’s video was condemned by both the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice David Lammy, and the Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer. However, this is far from the first time a government has accused immigration lawyers of sabotage. It’s recurrent theme. In a 2015 speech, then Home Secretary Theresa May accused ‘human rights activists and immigration lawyers’ of frustrating the asylum process by helping ‘people who are abusing our goodwill’.
May had also attacked ‘activist left-wing human rights lawyers [who] harangue and harass the bravest of the brave the men and women of our armed forces.’ Legal aid lawyers of a certain age might recall Jack Straw’s attack on BMW-driving civil liberties lawyers
The Home Office’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft later admitted that the phrase ‘should not have been used on a government channel’, and the video was subsequently taken down, sources from the Home Office appear to have doubled down in their disparagement of immigration lawyers. A Home Office spokesperson was quoted in the Daily Mail arguing that these claims are ‘often baseless and entirely without merit, but are given full legal consideration.’ Meanwhile, a government source for The Times criticised ‘loudmouthed lawyers and barristers who seem to spend more time on social media than representing their clients, who think even the mildest criticism of their profession will bring about the destruction of democracy’.