Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a backlash after his party conference claim that delays in the criminal justice system should be blamed on “lefty human rights lawyers”.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, swiftly condemned the comments as “shocking and troubling” while Shadow Justice secretary David Lammy called the speech “shameful”.
Mr Johnson’s comments represent the latest frontier of the battle being waged by the Government on the legal profession, which ministers have blamed for problems in the justice system.
Promoting a pledge to increase the number of police officers on the streets, the Prime Minister told the virtual conference: “We need to see results, not just spending; and so we are also backing those police, and protecting the public, by changing the law to stop the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders, and stopping the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless and rightly call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”
Responding to the Prime Minister’s comments, Ms Pinto said: “It is shocking and troubling that our own Prime Minister condones and extends attempts to politicise and attack lawyers for simply doing their job in the public interest.
“Lawyers – including those employed by the government itself - are absolutely vital to the running of our grossly under-funded criminal justice system.
“Their professional duty is to their client and to the court, and not to play political games.
“The proper application of the laws of this country is fundamental to the justice system and it is a lawyer’s task to set out the proper arguments to enable that to happen.”
Previous Conservative attacks had focused on human rights lawyers and immigration claims, but Mr Johnson in his speech expanded the criticism to the criminal justice system, an area where the government has faced sustained criticism itself for alleged underfunding and mismanagement.
The crown court backlog of cases, which has risen rapidly to more than 46,000 during the pandemic, had already reached 39,000 before coronavirus thanks to reductions in judge sitting days and other cutbacks in the system.
At the weekend, Home Secretary Priti Patel had said in her own conference speech that she is planning to introduce legislation to tackle “endless legal claims” from people who have been refused asylum.
“For those defending the broken system — the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party — they are defending the indefensible. And that is something I will never do”, she said.
Ms Pinto today pointed out: “Even the Home Secretary does not suggest that lawyers are hamstringing the criminal justice system.”
Responding on Twitter today, Mr Lammy said the Prime Minister’s speech is “utterly shameful” and suggested that lawyers are being “put at risk of physical and verbal attack”.
Mark George QC, head of Garden Court North Chambers, said Ms Patel is acting “with hate and cruelty”, telling her online: “I don't know what in your past causes you to feel and act this way but you shouldn't hold high office, you need help.”