David Renton

In defence of lefty lawyers

In defence of lefty lawyers
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What have the Conservatives got against left-wing lawyers like me? Boris Johnson told the Commons recently that the government was 'protect[ing] veterans from vexatious litigation pursued by lefty lawyers'. It was far from the first time lawyers had been targeted. 

The Home Office's most senior civil servant conceded last summer that officials should not have used the phrase 'activist lawyers' in a video blaming them for disrupting the asylum system. But it seemed that the Home Secretary didn't get the message. 

A few weeks later, Priti Patel claimed that 'removals (of illegal migrants) continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers'. At the Conservatives’ virtual party conference, Patel then vowed to stop 'endless legal claims' from people who are refused asylum, accusing 'traffickers' and 'lefty lawyers' of 'defending the indefensible'.

So impressed was the Prime Minister that he, too, joined in the verbal attacks on 'lefty human rights lawyers', telling delegates that the criminal justice system was being 'hamstrung' by them.

The message went down well. As a result of Priti Patel’s tweet, the Home Office video was watched half a million times. But while lawyers make a soft and popular target, the Tories should tone down their targeting of lawyers: it is poisonous to our political discourse, conceals the reality of immigration, and has put lawyers – who are just trying to do their job – in the firing line.

While you won't hear it from the government, here is the truth about the immigration debate in Britain. Our country takes a very small portion of the world’s asylum seekers. There were 26 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2019. In the year ending March 2020, the UK granted 20,000 people asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave. This was less than Germany, Spain, or Greece. Germany, in particular, accepted three times as many refugees as we did.

All countries in Europe take fewer people than they should. Every major state collaborates in legal systems that force migrants back toward conflict zones. However, the UK, in particular, with nearly one per cent of the world’s population, accepts each year less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s refugees. Is this right?

Ministers should also know that the words they use can have consequences. In September, a law firm which specialises in representing migrants, was subject to a knife attack. A 28-year-old man was charged with possession of, and making threats with, a bladed article in a public place; racially aggravated public disorder; assault; and making threats to kill. The responsibility for that attack lies with the perpetrator, of course. But the narrative peddled by the Tories about nefarious lawyers is unhelpful, to say the least.

The Bar Council and Law Society have begged ministers to stop the anti-lawyer rhetoric. For months they did. But now, ministers have started up again.

The smidgeon of truth contained in the idea of 'lefty lawyers' is that there does exist a legal left. Perhaps half a dozen barristers’ chambers specialise in representing the social justice side of any legal conflict – workers rather than employers, tenants rather than landlords, and (yes) immigrants rather than the state. Many solicitors’ firms specialise in the same sorts of work, just as there are solicitors who specialise in criminal defence rather than prosecution.

There are several left-wing legal groups, including a Society of Labour Lawyers. The (more radical) Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers enjoyed its 90th anniversary last year. This spring, a near-unanimous vote of Haldane members censured Keir Starmer for his milquetoast leadership of the Labour party.

No doubt some might wonder how it is possible for barristers in particular to represent social justice causes, when the cab-rank rule requires us to represent any cause, however noxious it is to our own values. But, as a socialist lawyer myself, in the dozen years I have been practising, I have never felt any pressure from other lawyers to represent both sides. The much larger trend is in the opposite direction. Most junior barristers start off assuming they will represent both sides, and end up choosing landlords or employers or the government simply because there is more work there, and it is better paid.

I have watched as lawyers of a similar experience to me have put in costs-bills demanding they be remunerated at the rate of £1,000 an hour. Meanwhile, when I represent tenants on legal aid in the county court I am not allowed to charge the public purse more than £59.40 per hour. Around a fifth of this is deducted by my chambers; and from the remainder, I also need to cover pension, taxes and holiday pay.

If it isn’t for the money, why do we put ourselves through this trouble? When you win, the job comes with a very high degree of satisfaction. I remember the evening I received an email from Islington Trades Council, wishing me success in the next day’s struggle on behalf of a blacklisted construction worker. 'Brother Renton…' the solidarity greetings began, and those words were enough to carry me through any number of subsequent defeats and equivocal victories.

I’ve held my clients’ hands as they lost their homes, and cried with relief when they saved them. Maybe I am being unfair, but my friends – whose determined advocacy swings the value of the judgment in a construction case by one or two per cent in their client’s favour – don’t seem to experience the same highs or lows.

As for whether we are standing in the way of 'progress' (with that abstract noun identified with interests of the government, employers or landlords), you do have to remind yourself sometimes that the law is a device for achieving a degree of compromise between rival social interests. If employment law didn’t exist then more workers would go on strike to save their jobs, more tenants would sit in the road to frustrate bailiffs, more refugees would hunger-strike rather than accept their deportation.

The law is, from this perspective, a mechanism to reconcile people to the defeat of causes in which they believe. Just as it also is, albeit more rarely, a terrain on which some of those causes win unexpected victories.

Left-wing lawyers did not create these conflicts; nor, ultimately, do we resolve them. That part is played by judges or the law in general, but not by us. We are merely the representatives of one side in a two-sided conflict.

You can get frustrated with left-wing lawyers as much as you like. But a world without us would be Hobbes’ society – the open conflict between people – and life would indeed be, just as he warned, 'nasty, brutish and short'. It's worth remembering that the next time Boris Johnson takes a pop at 'lefty lawyers'.