The Lord Chancellor yesterday told lawyers who “vaunt their political views” on social media to raise their profile and attract work that they are giving the profession a bad name.
Robert Buckland QC did not condemn recent comments by the prime minister and other ministers attacking lawyers that have infuriated the profession, but said he and others were under a duty “to make sure the tone of the debate is as calm and reasoned as possible”.
Quizzed by Parliament’s joint committee on human rights, Mr Buckland was asked by its chair, one-time solicitor Harriet Harman, about ministers’ attacks on “activist” and “lefty” lawyers”, as well as accusations that they were conducting “lawfare” by suing the government and armed forces, and whether questions about lawyers’ integrity should be left to their regulators.
He acknowledged that “there will be times when perhaps frustrations can develop and strong language can sometimes be deployed” – it was his job “to make sure the tone of the debate is as calm and reasoned as possible”.
But he pointed out that there have been times when practitioners “have indeed fallen foul of the regulator” in relation to lawfare – without specifying, he likely had the case of Phil Shiner in mind.
“The reputation of the legal profession was undermined by the activities of some so-called activist lawyers,” Mr Buckland said.
“It’s not a phrase that trips lightly off my tongue particularly. Having been a professional for many years before entering Parliament, I knew what my duties were and I stuck to them. And I believe that the majority of professionals do that.”
Stressing that “I left my politics at the door when I practised”, he went on to say that social media has amplified the issue.
“When I do see members of the legal fraternity using social media as a platform to vaunt their political views in a way that is designed to perhaps get them prominence or publicity and perhaps generate some work, I do worry about that.
“That is giving entirely the wrong impression about what the profession should be about…
“The profession is at its very best when it doesn’t wear its political colours on its sleeve and quietly gets on with its work.”
He did not directly address the recent comments made by ministers but recalled how the Blair government 20 years ago had attacked “fat cat lawyers”, which he said was “unacceptable”.
“While the tone has been, shall we say, a little warm of late, this isn’t something that’s particularly new. We should put it in its context. So long as there are strong voices like mine and indeed the Lord Chief Justice’s too reminding everybody about the essential values of the profession, then I think we are in a strong place when it comes to the rule of law.”
He went on: “We all need to collectively draw breath and remind ourselves that it is our collective responsibility to get our tone right here.”
It would be disturbing, Mr Buckland added, if the language used to attack lawyers led to physical or verbal assaults in person.
On other issues, the Lord Chancellor said he has “absolute confidence” in the independence of Lord Faulks, who is leading the government’s review of judicial review, despite having previously served as a Conservative minister.
He insisted that there was no intention to curtail judicial review; rather, “after a generation of the expansion of administrative law… [we are] just ascertaining whether changes are needed to strike the right balance”.
Judicial review “shouldn’t be politicised”, he continued, saying he was concerned that judges were being pulled into deciding on the merits of a policy rather than the process itself.
Mr Buckland stressed he was not saying judges were making decisions based on political views. “But there is an increasing risk that their decisions, even though based on the law, are being seen as having a political tinge.”
He also dismissed concerns that a planned review of the role of the Supreme Court would damage its independence, as well as suggestions that it was an act of revenge after the court’s prorogation ruling last year. A minister acting like that would be “infantile” and “unworthy” of the office.
The MP said it would be looking at the “status of court within the wider constitution” and how to make more use of expertise in the appellate courts of the UK’s three jurisdictions.