Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Political engagement: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

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Political engagement: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

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From the UK's withdrawal from the EU to the Labour leadership ballot, the legal profession's involvement in political events is proving unpopular, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

From the UK's withdrawal from the EU to the Labour leadership ballot, the legal profession's involvement in political events is proving unpopular, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

In his inaugural speech as Law Society president, Robert Bourns said he planned on proudly promoting the achievements of the solicitor profession. Judging by the events of this week, Bourns has his work cut out for him.

Perhaps not since the US Supreme Court intervened in the 2000 presidential election have lawyers been so vehemently accused of circumventing the democratic will of the people. But is it right that lawyers should be so maligned for simply doing their jobs? In short, no. But in the new world of post-truth politics, this is where we find ourselves.

Mishcon de Reya found itself in critical crosshairs this week after Brexit supporters staged a pro-democracy demonstration outside its London office. It followed the firm's announcement that it was acting on behalf of a group of businesses to ensure an Act of parliament is passed before withdrawal from the EU begins. Demonstrators held up banners and placards declaring 'Invoke article 50 now' and 'Uphold the Brexit vote' to show their anger at those pesky, interfering lawyers.

The Spectator called Mishcon's actions a 'coup against democracy', while an article in the Telegraph written by a protester said the firm was using the courts to 'subvert the democratic mandate of the British people'. Another, from former Labour MP Tom Harris, said it would be better to fight ten more referendums than 'let a bunch of lawyers tell Britain what to do'.

The Daily Express, never one to mince its headlines, led with 'Fury over legal bid to BLOCK EU exit: Top lawyers in threat to referendum vote & DEMOCRACY'. And then there was the Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce, who called for 'snooty' Mishcon's clients to abandon the firm for 'trying to overturn the will of [the] people'. But that was nothing like what was seen in the bowels of social media, where multiple variations of 'grubby lawyers, meddling with democracy' can be found.

In addition to Mishcon's high-profile challenge, Edwin Coe has launched its own, representing British citizen Deir Dos Santos, whose judicial review also argues that the authority to trigger article 50 rests with parliament. The application over the prime minister's executive powers will be heard in the High Court on 19 July.

The Bar has fared no better when raising the same argument as Mishcon and Edwin Coe. This week, over 1,000 barristers signed a letter to then prime minister David Cameron, stating there should be an Act of parliament, followed by a free vote of MPs, before any decision is made to leave the EU. Giving their free legal advice, the signatories - including more than 100 QCs - said that although the referendum vote should be acknowledged, the result itself is not legally binding. Cue accusations that the profession is full of 'bad losers' and that the advice amounted to 'parliamentary paternalism'.

But Brexit is not the only political event that lawyers have been thrust into of late. Disagreement on whether Labour's Jeremy Corbyn should be automatically included in a leadership contest, without the 'necessary' support from his parliamentary colleagues, led to differing legal opinions from the likes of Doughty Street Chambers, Michael Mansfield QC, and James Goudie QC. Cue arguments online as to which lawyer was a 'Blairite' and which was a 'Corbynista'.

The decision from Labour's governing body to include Corbyn on the ballot is not the end of the story, however, as it is set to be challenged by one of the party's donors. The civil war engulfing the party has not been helped by the involvement of lawyers. Nor is their work likely to be cherished by the public and Labour supporters. When it comes to caring about the rule of law, lawyers are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk
 @JvdLD