Boris Johnson has been asked to withdraw his attack on lawyers by the head of the Bar in England and Wales, after the prime minister branded them “lefty human rights lawyers” and “do-gooders”.
In his speech to the Conservative Party’s virtual conference, Johnsonn claimed the government is working to stop “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”.
Johnson’s remarks, which were branded “utterly shameful” by Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy, echoed home secretary Priti Patel’s speech which accused “lefty lawyers” of “defending the indefensible”.
In a letter to Johnson, Amanda Pinto QC – chairwoman of the Bar Council, which represents around 18,000 barristers – called on the prime minister to withdraw his comments “which wrongly seek to politicise and attack lawyers for simply doing their job in the public interest”.
She wrote: “Far from the criminal justice system being ‘hamstrung’ by lawyers, the backlog of cases, extreme delays, crumbling court estate and shockingly underpaid practitioners are a direct result of chronic underfunding by successive governments.
“It is the continual lack of investment that hamstrings the system and prevents many members of the public from accessing effective justice.”
Pinto referred to recent comments by justice secretary and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC, who said that the government was “committed” to upholding the rule of law.
She added: “The government cannot remain committed to this principle by attacking those who put it into action every day.”
Pinto told Johnson: “I urge you to withdraw your comments and to reassure thousands of key workers – including lawyers employed by your own government – that they are not being attacked by their prime minister for their important contribution to the justice system.”
Responding to Johnson’s remarks earlier this week, 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”.
Davis added: “This divisive language serves nobody and puts lawyers and their clients at risk.”
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.”
Roddy Dunlop QC, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates which represents Scottish lawyers, also spoke out against Johnson and Patel’s remarks, calling them “simply unconscionable”.
Mr Dunlop added that “in a climate of increasing populism, this sort of rhetoric is not only facile and offensive – it is potentially harmful”.