Boris Johnson has attacked “lefty human rights lawyers” for disrupting the justice system in a move branded “utterly shameful” and “deeply concerning” by legal figures.
The prime minister ramped up the rhetoric in the latest battle between the government and the justice system during his speech at the Conservative Party conference, repeating sentiments from home secretary Priti Patel just days earlier.
Johnson said: “We’re also backing those police up, protecting the public by changing the law to stop the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders and 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.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy branded the comments “utterly shameful” while industry leaders came out in force to hit back at the remarks.
Amanda Pinto QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “It is shocking and troubling that our own prime minister condones and extends attempts to politicise and attack lawyers for simply doing their job in the public interest.
“Lawyers – including those employed by the government itself – are absolutely vital to the running of our grossly under-funded criminal justice system. Their professional duty is to their client and to the court, and not to play political games.
“The proper application of the laws of this country is fundamental to the justice system and it is a lawyer’s task to set out the proper arguments to enable that to happen.”
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said the “repeated government attacks on the integrity of the legal profession” were “deeply concerning”, adding: “This divisive language serves nobody and puts lawyers and their clients at risk.
“All solicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by parliament. Legal rights cannot be rewritten through rhetoric.
“The justice system determines the validity of claims independently from government, media and public opinion.
“In countries where lawyers are unable to do their job for fear of intimidation the rule of law is weakened. The consequences are a society that becomes less safe, less stable and less fair.”
After Patel’s speech on Sunday, the Law Society warned that “slinging insults at lawyers” put them at risk of verbal and physical abuse.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister with Doughty Street Chambers, told the PA news agency it was “no surprise” the Johnson was “picking a fight with lawyers” because “his government keeps losing in court when it acts unlawfully”.
He added: “People need to understand that what is really going on is the government don’t like certain laws, such as human rights laws, or feel they should not be bound by them, and is deflecting attention from that basic fact by attacking lawyers who are just doing their job.”
While James Mulholland QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, accused the government of a “wilful running down of the criminal justice system”, saying that a decade of cuts meant it had “strung itself up” and was now grappling with huge criminal case backlogs.
He added: “What is worse, there are ever fewer criminal lawyers left to prosecute and defend to deal with a cataclysmic backlog of despair for victims, witnesses and suspects alike or to help government in their overarching duty to protect the public from harm.”
This latest clash comes after 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.
The seeds of the government’s battle with the courts were sown in the Brexit rows, when campaigner Gina Miller successfully challenged No 10 over then prime minister Theresa May’s right to trigger Article 50 without a vote in parliament.
The Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament was unlawful was thought to fuel Tory suspicions about judicial activism.
The row with the judiciary intensified after a Court of Appeal decision earlier this year which the government said prevented the deportation of 25 foreign offenders to Jamaica.
An independent review of judicial reviews – the legal challenge process – has also been launched, but legal experts describe them as a vital cog in the justice system to make sure wrongs are righted and those in power are held to account for failings.