Should the legal profession be more popular with the public than it currently is? That is the question that has been circling my mind this week since Kevin Poulter asked what makes a ‘good lawyer’ in last week’s issue, and questioned whether a practitioner must only work for the underdog to be considered as such.
The public’s perception of the legal profession is often coloured by the way the mainstream media reports on it. Personal injury (PI) lawyers are vilified as ambulance-chasing vultures, always willing to help a ‘dodgy client’ extort money from the poverty stricken insurance industry. They in turn begrudgingly pass losses on to the already tightly-squeezed consumer in the form of higher premiums.
Legal aid practitioners are castigated as criminal defence ‘fat-cats’, thirstily lapping up millions of pounds from the public purse while keeping murderers and rapists on the streets. While their partners in crime, the devilish human rights lawyers, are described as left-wing meddlers in government affairs, who take delight in blocking the extradition of terrorists from these fair shores.
Anyone who has ever worked in PI litigation will know the vast majority of practitioners work hard to recover the compensation rightly owed to their clients. Legal aid practitioners do not live in ivory towers, and the remuneration they receive is far less than they deserve for the great public service they provide.
As for human rights lawyers, well the Tories’ recently-announced plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and limit the powers of the European Court of Human Rights has split the opinions of both the voting public and the mainstream media. Tabloid newspapers and right-wing commentators took great joy at questioning what those ‘meddling human rights lawyers’ would do next to fund their lavish lifestyles.
Meanwhile, those to the left of the political spectrum expressed everything from concern to complete indignation at the idea of repealing a piece of legislation rooted in British values. But with the country’s biggest selling newspapers, the Daily Mail and The Sun, gleeful at the thought of sticking their proverbial middle fingers up at Europe, it is debateable as to whose message is being absorbed more by the public.
With huge swathes gathering their daily news from the above publications, it is easy to see how many could reach ill-informed opinions against human rights and those of the profession who practice it. Two recent YouGov polls illustrate the issue perfectly. The first found that 37 per cent of Conservative voters and 46 per cent of Ukip voters do not believe that human rights actually exist, compared to 68 per cent of Labour and 83 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters who do.
A second survey to mark half a century since the UK’s last execution found that 45 per cent of the public supported the reintroduction of capital punishment. Of those polled, 73 per cent of Ukip voters approved its reinstatement with one in ten supporters strongly approving beheadings for those founds guilty of a capital crime.
Is the mainstream media documenting these statistics, providing evidence of what can happen to victims of miscarriages of justice and defending human rights? No. There is a far larger human rights story to capture the public’s attention: whether or not the distinguished barrister formerly known as Amal Alamuddin was right to take her new husband’s name.
The legal profession may never be loved by the media and general public. Perhaps that is a good thing.
This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 17 October 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.