The end of democracy?
By Nicola Laver
Are we facing societal collapse as a result of an apathetic attitude to the rule of law?
Societal collapse is often caused by a systemic undermining of the rule of law. In England and Wales, the threat of collapse has been simmering over the last year but covid-19 has exposed the danger for what it truly is.
Let’s rewind a little. It is the government’s fundamental duty to maintain the rule of law. When this principle is no longer respected by government, society starts to collapse.
When government openly admits that a proposed bill will break international law but simultaneously urges other countries to follow international law, we know trust in government will dissipate.
When both the Bar Council and the Law Society have no choice but to acknowledge that the rule of law is under threat and urge government to remove the offending parts of the bill, we know things are getting dire. Or as Amal Clooney succinctly put it in her letter of resignation as UK special envoy on media freedom, it will “fatally puncture people’s faith in our justice system”.
When government threatens to exact revenge against our independent judiciary by abolishing the Human Rights Act and makes clear its desire to curb the power of judges to rule on executive decisions, we are seeing the beginning of the end of democracy.
When government ministers demonise lawyers, the very people qualified to help ‘the man on the street’ who needs their legal expertise, we know our profession’s collective reputation is tarnished (again).
When the average person needs a lawyer but finds themselves in the ‘squeezed middle’ with no recourse to public funds and no access to private funds, we know there is a serious access to justice problem. Millions are reportedly now being forced to choose between no legal protection or falling into poverty (see p13).
When a black female barrister is mistaken for a defendant three times in one day in the court building, we know racial tensions remain alive and well.
It was chilling to hear Chris Daw QC tell delegates at the Big Law Summit (see page 45), of a sitting crown court judge who has been pressurised not to allow people to leave prison even when he believes they are being unlawfully detained; and that formal complaints have apparently been made against those seeking to interfere with the independence of the judiciary.
Then there’s the pandemic. Covid-19 has not so much ruined UK society but laid bare the cracks of a society already in collapse. Government has made up laws on the hoof and enacted them without even a sniff of parliamentary debate or approval.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so unpalatable if government itself knew what rules applied where and when. Instead, it’s a hotbed of confusion around the most fundamental restrictions imposed on people’s personal and family freedoms.
As a society struggling with various stages in lockdown, we are shut in our homes as the battle rages among government, parliament, the scientific community, local authority leaders – and lawyers.
We’re all prone, because of the levels of stress this thing exerts over us, to point the finger – forgetting that when we do so, there are three fingers pointing back at ourselves. And yes, we should also blame ourselves for this societal chaos because perhaps as a profession we could have done more.
As covid-19 threatens our health and wellbeing and government tramples our freedoms, what are we doing? As our young people start university (or a form of it) and are collectively blamed for surges in covid-19 cases and threatened with a cancelled family Christmas, what are we doing?
As our justice system edges closer to collapse and government increasingly rules by decree, what are we doing? If we do nothing we risk being compliant.
But what can we do other than ensure the cracks remain visible? Our professional bodies are maintaining the pressure on government but increasingly, we are asking ourselves, what next?
Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal