On 17 January 1989, in a parliamentary debate about proposed counter-terrorism laws, Home Office minister Douglas Hogg made the following comment: “I have to state as a fact, but with great regret, that there are, in Northern Ireland, a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.”
Less than a month later, prominent criminal defence solicitor Patrick Finucane was shot dead while having a Sunday meal with his family at his Belfast home. It seemed that Hogg’s regrettable ‘fact’, which he repeated on multiple occasions, was seized on to justify Finucane’s assassination. While the men who pulled the triggers belonged to a loyalist paramilitary group, the target was chosen by agents of the British state, in an act of collusion that David Cameron would be forced to apologise for over two decades later.
Over 30 years on, the Home Office’s hostile rhetoric against lawyers representing today’s ‘undesirables’ appears to have once again incited an alleged terrorist attack on a member of the legal profession. On 7 September 2020, four days after home secretary Priti Patel tweeted that “activist lawyers” were ‘frustrating’ the removal of migrants, Cavan Medlock, armed with a knife and handcuffs, entered the offices of Duncan Lewis solicitors and allegedly launched a violent racist attack threatening to kill one of its lawyers.
The Crown Prosecution Service stated that Medlock was motivated by “the firm’s involvement in preventing the government from deporting people who had come into the country unlawfully”. It has been reported that he also allegedly planned to take a solicitor hostage and display Nazi and Confederate flags in the firm’s windows to inspire others. It may only be a coincidence that Duncan Lewis has been involved in many of the immigration cases in which Patel has targeted the lawyers involved.
Patel’s repeat use of the phrase “activist lawyers” came less than a fortnight after the Home Office permanent secretary had conceded that it should never have been used and vowed that it would not be used again, on Home Office accounts or anywhere else by civil servants. Furthermore, despite both the attorney general and the lord chancellor urging Patel to tone down her rhetoric in the wake of the attack for fear of provoking further violence, she instead used her speech at this year’s Conservative party conference this month to intensify her targeting of “lefty lawyers”, who she equated with human traffickers.
A history of intimidation.
Patel is not the most popular figure in Westminster, having recently been the subject of a bullying inquiry. Three years ago, she was sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet for holding a series of secret unofficial meetings with the Israeli government. While former lord chancellor David Gauke has opined that Patel’s behaviour marks a departure from Conservative tradition, there is plenty of precedent for her attempts to undermine the rule of law in this way.
In attacking lawyers at the party conference, Patel was following in the footsteps of one of her predecessors Theresa May who, as home secretary in October 2015, accused “immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers” of frustrating the asylum process by helping “people who are abusing our goodwill”. Two months later, then defence secretary Michael Fallon shifted the attack to “ambulance chasing law firms” for bringing actions against members of the armed forces.
This was followed by David Cameron promising to protect the armed forces from being “hounded by lawyers over claims that are totally without foundation”. By that time, the Ministry of Defence had paid out approximately £20m in over 300 such “spurious” cases. A year later, May, now prime minister, bolstered the attack to rapturous applause at the party conference when she jeered “activist left-wing human rights lawyers [who] harangue and harass the bravest of the brave: the men and women of our armed forces”.
Questions must be asked as to how we have reached a stage where it is normal for the state to attack lawyers with impunity. Regardless of whether their clients are asylum seekers, foreign criminals, victims of police or army brutality, at what point did it become acceptable to intimidate and harass lawyers in breach of paragraph 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers? The same document also prohibits associating lawyers with the political views or objectives of their clients; in other words, lawyers should not be taken to agree with or support the people they represent. Yet, the above examples demonstrate that lawyers have clearly become the suspects and are being treated as ‘enemies of the people’.
Rotten to the core.
In my contribution to the forthcoming book I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security, I focused on my own challenges as a Muslim terror ‘suspect lawyer’ (a subset of a subset of those under attack). I wrote that while representing reviled individuals often triggered public opprobrium, the situation was not so bleak that any lawyers in the UK were at risk of being assassinated like Pat Finucane. Clearly, I was wrong.
Irish state papers released last year confirmed that Douglas Hogg’s comments about solicitors in Ireland reflected “a precise official briefing” and did not constitute a “spontaneous outburst on his part”. Despite two inquiries concluding that he had been “compromised” and had increased the vulnerability of prominent solicitors in Northern Ireland, Hogg was awarded a life peerage in 2015.
Boris Johnson’s unstinted support for his home secretary’s comments, coupled with his own choice words for criminal defence lawyers, despite the attack on Duncan Lewis, does raise the question as to whether Patel’s behaviour is reflective of official government policy today. If nothing else, it confirms that the rot at the centre of the establishment will continue long after Patel is removed from office. Will it actually take the murder of another solicitor for the current practice to end?
Fahad Ansari is the principal solicitor and director of Riverway Law, a niche firm specialising in immigration and nationality law. He also works as a consultant at Duncan Lewis Solicitors. He has been involved in community work around the War on Terror and Islamophobia for almost two decades.