In defence of activist lawyers

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In defence of activist lawyers

Over the summer, watching the whites of the waves break against the shore of the UK’s south coast, many holidaymakers dozing in their deckchairs will have absent-mindedly imagined taking to the water, playing Indiana Jones and venturing across the Channel in pursuit of Calais.  On a still summer’s day, with marshmallow clouds drifting across an azure sky, it hardly seems a challenge at all, more an opportunity to get a truly excellent tan. After all, you can even see the coast of France, if you squint.

Such a fantasy belies the reality that is crossing the Channel, a reality that is all too real for many of the migrants and refugees seeking a better life in the UK.  For those who manage to reach France’s northernmost border, they look out upon the world’s busiest shipping lane, where tankers, freighters and cruise-liners all jostle for space, while ferries carrying passported travellers weave in between their vast hulks. This is the final challenge of such peoples’ arduous journey.   If they are lucky – luck they will have paid handsomely for – smugglers may be ready with small boats, and, squeezed in cheek by jowl, they will race across the water, attempting to avoid the French authorities and an encounter with a bigger ship.  The less fortunate must scavenge what they can, like the tragic Sudanese pair who attempted the route in a dinghy before capsizing, one drowning and the other washing up on a French beach.

To have sympathy for those willing to risk their lives for a journey like this would seem the very least anyone could do.  Regardless of whether such travellers are truly refugees, or ‘merely’ economic migrants, anyone choosing such peril must be facing a desperate plight at home.  This sympathy, according to a YouGov poll conducted over the summer, is not something that many Britons are willing to offer. Instead, nearly half said that they had ‘little’ or ‘no’ sympathy for those braving the Channel’s waters.

Much of their antipathy is doubtless rooted in the government’s constant propaganda against immigrants. No distinction is drawn between refugees and economic migrants, who are instead portrayed as a single group, a horde massing at the gates of Calais, prepared to wreak havoc upon England’s green and pleasant land. The fact that the overwhelming majority, regardless of their status, simply want a job and a safe home is conveniently forgotten.  But drawing such a distinction would dilute the government’s primary aim, which is to draw a bright line between ‘them’ and us’.  Engaging in such an absolutist stance makes it easy to stoke division, ‘othering’ such groups and making citizens see them as less than human, and so not worth treating with respect and dignity.

From here, having set the stage for conflict, the government can easily portray itself as being on the ‘people’s’ side.  This is what explains Priti Patel’s attempts over the summer to call in the Navy, thus militarising the Channel.  The government knows, or at least should know, that putting more boats in the water does nothing to deter illegal immigration.  People fleeing war-torn countries like Sudan and Eritrea aren’t going to be terrified by the thought of the British Navy,  bound by international humanitarian law, picking them up in the Channel.  Instead, they may well find it reassuring, confident that if they run into trouble, the Navy or coastguard will be obliged to bring them safely ashore.  But the government isn’t primarily concerned with deterring such immigrants, but making voters think it is trying very hard to deter them.

Similarly, the EU has picked up much of the flak over the past weeks, with Conservatives retreating into the comforting embrace of Euroscepticism.  Allegedly, once we have exited the transition period, the government will be free to enact laws that allow them to wantonly return illegal immigrants to whatever country seems most convenient.  Once more, the government must be aware that EU rules make it significantly easier to return refugees, with Dublin III – a regulation that will end with the transition period – requiring refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they enter, and allowing them to be returned to that country if they travel further into Europe.  This again frames the narrative as one of conflict, where the patriotic government is attempting to fulfil the people’s will, but is being obstructed by outside forces.

After the UK completes its departure from the EU, however, it will not be so straightforward to cast the EU as the villain of the piece.  Enter the ‘activist lawyers’.   In an animation tweeted on Thursday morning, the Home Office claimed that such lawyers were interfering in deportations, stopping the government from returning immigrants to where they belonged.  The same story was repeated later in the day, when the Home Office’s deportation of twenty three migrants to Spain was stopped by legal action, and a Home Office spokesman sought to blame ‘unprecedented and organised casework barriers sprung on the government’.

This continues the escalation of the modern Conservative party’s longstanding vendetta against the courts.  From Theresa May’s debunked claim, as Home Secretary, that owning a cat stopped a migrant from being deported, to the ongoing controversy over Shamima Begum, judges and lawyers are rarely,  if ever, presented as enforcing neutral laws and values that protect us all. Rather, they are always nefariously plotting to manipulate the law to help their clients, as ‘activists’ opposed to the government’s ideology.

It is not the government’s right-wing ideology, however, that many lawyers are opposed to, but its constant attempts to shield itself from scrutiny and undermine the rule of law.  The justice system is one of the few ways that the vulnerable and oppressed can challenge the government, where judges can force it to explain itself, holding it to account for unjustified, irrational, or immoral policies. Scandals like Grenfell and Hillsborough are exposed by judge-led inquiries, while citizens – even those that may deserve our scorn, like Shamima Begum – have their rights upheld. Attacking the partiality of such lawyers is a transparent attempt to reduce the courts’ effectiveness, paving the way for the government to try and limit access to the courts even further, or bind judges’ hands, preventing them from intervening on ‘political’ issues.  This threatens us all – not just those seeking refuge in the UK. The government’s attack on the rule of law is the story people need to be told – not fairytales about refugees in boats.