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How the government sees the profession: 'Fat cats', 'activists', and 'vultures'

How the government sees the profession: 'Fat cats', 'activists', and 'vultures'


Lawyers are the pantomime villains in the Tories' play for political point scoring, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

It's a good thing conference season is officially over; I was beginning to fear blood would spilled over the pristine floors of Birmingham's International Convention Centre and Hyatt Regency Hotel. No, not the blood of journalists or lobbyists hungrily scrapping for a scoop or deal, nor from politicians throwing their handbags at each other '“ that behaviour only belongs at the European Parliament or a Common's bar '“ but instead the metaphorical blood of lawyers desperately trying to avoid the pitchforks of a baying mob.

With the Conservative party conference in full swing last week, anyone would have been forgiven for believing the only legal story in town was the vilification of lawyers by various government ministers. Theresa May set the tone of what was to come in her opening address to the party faithful by taking aim at those challenging the government's power to activate article 50 without a vote by parliament.

'Those people' '“ and by extension their legal representatives '“ 'who argue that article 50 can only be triggered after agreement in both houses of parliament are not standing up for democracy, they're trying to subvert it,' she said. Edwin Coe and Mishcon de Reya, you have been warned. Howwever, these were not the only law firms to feel the sharp tongue of the prime minister and her cabinet colleagues.

Appearing on Sky News 48 hours later, May announced the government would put a stop to the legal profession's 'industry of vexatious claims' against Britain's armed forces by derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights. The secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, quickly took up the baton in his conference address by claiming the legal system had been 'abused to falsely accuse' Britain's heroes.

Next to wield the knife was the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, who followed up on her criticism of 'ambulance chasing' human rights lawyers by laying further groundwork for the long-stalled overhaul of domestic human rights laws.

'Despite what Labour thinks, human rights were not invented in 1998,' she said. 'For more than 1,000 years this country has led the world on protecting individual freedoms. Our proposals on a British Bill of Rights will be the next step forward '“ building on our ancient liberties of democracy,' (except when it comes to article 50) 'the rule of law,' (except for our troops, who will be placed above it) 'and trial by jury' (will defendants will be encouraged to plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentences under future online court proposals?).

But Fallon and Truss did not signal the end of the verbal assault on members of the legal profession. Giving the closing address to the conference, the prime minister returned to promise her supporters that 'those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers' would never again 'harangue and harass' the men and women of Britain's military.

Such was the frenzied applause with which the words 'activist, left-wing human rights lawyers' were greeted by the party's membership that you might have feared for members of the West Midlands legal community had the prime minister even jokingly uttered the immortal words: 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.' Some light relief would not have gone amiss; perhaps a bewigged barrister could have walked on the stage like a pantomime villain to shouts of: 'He's behind you!'

Criticism of the prime minister's, Lord Chancellor's, defence secretary's, and even home secretary's speeches were swift. Lawyers across the country could be heard angrily bashing away on keyboards to issue press releases, rebuttals, and acerbic tweets '“ making the job of journalists like myself that much easier but, no doubt, going largely ignored by a public that is happily willing to believe 'EU human rights laws' only protect 'Johnny foreigner' and terrorists. Not to mention, by extension, their feline companions.

Human rights lawyers, especially those that make a crust from publicly funded cases, will never be adored by the public. But, again, they were not the only ones under scrutiny last week. 'Vulture lawyers bleed the NHS for £418m' rang the Mail on Sunday's front page. According to the paper, 'grasping law firms' had a record year after pursuing medical blunders against the NHS, with some 'greedy ambulance chasers' accused of pulling in 'grossly inflated fees'.

The likes of Irwin Mitchell (£29m), Slater & Gordon (£12m), Simpson Millar (£6.5m), and Leigh Day (£5.4m) were all highlighted as the top-earning medical negligence firms. The story is what you will have come to expect from the Mail: innuendo, spin, and very little context. The NHS Litigation Authority needed to explain away these rising costs, but why admit to a well-earned reputation for digging in its heels - especially on liability - when it could instead just blame 'fat cat' lawyers for rising litigation costs.

Moreover, the story's timing may deflect some of the criticism aimed at the health secretary, who '“ despite defeating the judicial review into new junior doctor contracts '“ is still not loved by the medical profession. This story has more than a whiff of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' about it.

If so, the post-truth politics of the past week suggest a frightening pattern, one where the government ministers will look to lay every mishap or challenge of their department on the doorstep of the legal profession. The implications of which, for our justice system and the rule of law, would be startling.

To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: First they came for the fat cat legal aid lawyers, and I did not speak out '“ because I was not a legal aid lawyer.

Then they came for the left-wing, activist human rights lawyers, and I did not speak out '“ because I was not a human rights lawyer.

Then they came for the ambulance-chasing vultures, the medical negligence lawyers, and I did not speak out '“ because I was not a medical negligence lawyer'¦

If they end up coming after the conveyancers, then we really will be in trouble.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD