“While, in Britain, we are thankfully not in a situation where lawyers fear for their lives, we have recently seen an increasing number of verbal attacks that give cause for concern.”
What did Shakespeare mean when the character Dick the butcher in Henry VI Part Two said: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’? Is it to be taken literally as a criticism of lawyers? Or if, as many critics believe, an evil character said it, was it intended to convey that lawyers ensure justice, and you need to get rid of them to enable the wicked to flourish?
While there is considerable debate over the meaning of that line, there is no doubt at all that, in many parts of the world, lawyers’ lives are in danger, not just from those committing crimes but also from governments. Amnesty International has highlighted the plight of the 200 mainly human rights lawyers in China who have been rounded up for questioning. The Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers Group notes that, on average, a lawyer is killed every month in Colombia. Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson have been murdered.
While, in Britain, we are thankfully not in a situation where lawyers generally fear for their lives, we have recently seen an increasing number of verbal attacks in the media and by politicians that give cause for concern. But why do lawyers attract such scorn and what can we say to address the reasons?
Lawyers represent people and organisations, some of whom will, of course, be unpopular. That does not necessarily mean the lawyers support them, or indeed believe them. If a lawyer represents a murderer, that does not mean they approve of murder; it means they have a professional duty to advise their client about the laws of this country and to follow their instructions.
It is also important to note that unless they were in the room during the offence, it is vital for lawyers to remain open to the possibility that an unlikely version of events is true. They are not judge and jury.
So what do you do if you represent unpopular clients and the government or a newspaper decides to have a go at you? And what if you then fear for your or your family’s safety?
Much has been written about the government’s attack on Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, and the dossier compiled for the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Indeed, in a Haldane Society petition on Change.org
, one of the calls is for an apology from the government for breaching principles 16 and 18 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and for using parliament as a platform to undermine and endanger Shiner.
Deighton Pierce Glynn, meanwhile, featured in a newspaper article attacking individuals at the firm. Its dignified response is worth publishing in full: ‘We are asked to provide advice and representation to a wide range of clients, both institutional clients and individuals. This includes those reliant on legal aid and it includes those unlawfully denied medical treatment due to their immigration status. We make no apology for doing so. Instead, we think it is a scandal that in the UK in 2015, people with life-threatening conditions such as cancer or kidney failure are routinely and unlawfully denied healthcare – even though they may die or suffer irreversible damage if they do not receive treatment.’
No winners without losers
Lawyers are also disliked because in civil litigation, by definition, you cannot have two winners. So the losing party will be unhappy. And, indeed, in much litigation, the so-called winner may not be overjoyed – but that is the nature of the beast. What needs to be emphasised is that the issue is in court because no other resolution is possible.
Aside from the above, there are many more mundane reasons for lawyers’ unpopularity, chief among them being ‘they charge £20 (or £200, or more) for a letter.’ I have heard it so many times. That is something lawyers can do right now: be clear about charging. The four hours’ research before the letter may justify the time for which the client is billed, but do check that this is clearly explained to them.
Social media safety
Regarding social media, Young Legal Aid Lawyers have suggested ways in which you can protect yourself:
•Check your social media privacy settings, eg how accessible your Facebook page is – Google yourself incognito, ie not logged in.
•Consider using TweetDelete.
•Limit who can access your Instagram pages.
•Don’t tweet photos of yourself on holiday. If you share them elsewhere, do so privately.
There are many reasons why lawyers are unpopular, rooted in unpalatable truths, misconceptions and misinformation, but it is important that we continue to counter attacks on our work so that the public and press have a greater understanding of our role in society. ■
In praise of …, page 9.