Cabinet reshuffles, human rights and vulnerable clients

It was Dick the butcher, a minor character that few of us will recall for anything other than one of the most memorable lines in all of William Shakespeare’s works, who uttered the immortal words: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

While our prime minister may not want to go as far as Dick’s utopian vision of England’s green and pleasant lands, unburdened by all its solicitors and barristers, David Cameron certainly seems to be making a concerted effort to nullify the power of at least one particular breed of legal professional: the human rights lawyer.

It seems fairly obvious to all that, with a general election on the horizon, new hard-line Conservative policies appear to be designed to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK. The first step in conquering Strasbourg appears to have been to remove anyone from government with even a modicum of affinity or even understanding of the history and importance of human rights law.

Attorney general Dominic Grieve QC; policing, criminal justice and victims minister Damian Green; as well as parliamentary stalwart Ken Clarke and foreign secretary William Hague all became intimately acquainted with the prime minister’s broom during the recent cabinet reshuffle. All were for human rights in principle and opposed – in varying degrees – to the government’s proposed strategy.

Since the reshuffle, Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has warned that the Conservative’s “half-baked plans” would leave the UK’s international standing “in tatters”.

Half-baked Tory plans? I find myself wondering what else we should have expected from a government that shows such contempt for the roles of law officers of the crown that it filled the newly vacant roles of attorney general and solicitor general with – let’s be frank – nobodies. And that is being kind to both Jeremy Wright and Robert Buckland.

Who’s who?

In the hours and days that followed the reshuffle, lawyers up and down the country scrambled to find out who these two unknowns were and what their combined experiences comprised. The answer is not much. The only matter of note appears to be Buckland’s breach of the Bar’s code of conduct three years ago, which has already found him in hot water.

Should we be surprised? What else did we expect from a government whose home secretary, Theresa May, has said she “personally” would like to scrap the Human Rights Act because of the “problems it caused” for the Home Office? This is a home secretary who, at a Tory party conference, commented that “some judges chose to ignore parliament and go on putting the law on the side of foreign criminals instead of the public”, and one who vowed to kick immigrants out of the UK before they had a chance to appeal.

But then, of course, this is the same government that was happy to place the almost sacred office of lord chancellor in the hands of a former television producer and management consultant instead of a qualified, experienced and respected lawyer. This is a lord chancellor who once said: “The European Court of Human Rights has lost its legitimacy in the UK by doing things that frankly the people of this country and their elected representatives do not want.” In Chris Grayling’s mind, the rule of law is less important than what is popular rhetoric for the masses.

This is also the same lord chancellor/justice secretary hybrid who recently referred to a whole subsection of the legal profession as “ambulance-chasing lawyers”. So should we expect anything less?

Taking all that into consideration, perhaps it is not only human rights lawyers on the endangered species list but, in fact, any lawyer who disagrees with the Tory ideals of middle England. It seems quite obvious that a future Conservative government will be no friend to the legal profession.

Perhaps that is to be expected. I can imagine that the ‘Op Cotton’ trial was not the first argument Cameron has ever lost to his high-flying QC brother, Alex. Maybe this is all just some deep-seated sibling rivalry that has boiled over to scald the whole of the legal profession.

The problem is that the real losers – the ones who will get burnt the most – are the vulnerable members of our society who are increasingly having to fight against the “nasty party” just to get the justice they are duly owed.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 23 July 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.