The home secretary, Priti Patel MP, hit out last week at what she dubbed as ‘leftie lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’ who she believes are against reforming the asylum system. Speaking at the virtual Conservative party conference
on 4 October 2020, she told the audience that ‘our asylum system is fundamentally broken’ and pledged ‘the biggest overhaul in decades’ to make it ‘fairer and firmer’. She also promised to ‘accelerate our operational response to illegal migration’. Her comments were met with widespread criticism from the legal professions.
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said: ‘Slinging insults at lawyers undermines the rule of law in an area where views are already hotly held on all sides and risks leading not just to verbal abuse but to lawyers being physically attacked for doing their job’ (Jemma Slingo, ‘Lawyers at risk of physical attack after Patel speech, says Law Society
’, Law Society Gazette
, 5 October 2020). He also pointed out that representing an asylum-seeker ‘does not make them a “leftie lawyer”. It simply makes them a lawyer’.
Responding to Patel’s comments, Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said that trying to ‘paint lawyers with the “leftie” brush’ seeks to demonise the very people ‘helping constituents every day, without agenda, simply because they provide a vital public service’ (‘Bar Council condemns the government’s attempt to paint lawyers as “lefties”
’, Bar Council press release, 5 October 2020). She argued: ‘The law, not politics, is what matters to a profession that upholds the rule of law.’
Speaking to Legal Action, Sonia Lenegan, legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), condemned the home secretary’s comments as ‘inappropriate and dangerous’, and warned that the publicity they generated ‘has placed lawyers, who are just doing their jobs, at risk of violence from far-right groups’.
Lenegan believes that if the home secretary was genuine in her aim to reduce the number of last-minute challenges in asylum cases, she would persuade the Ministry of Justice to increase funding for legal aid lawyers to provide more assistance at the beginning of cases. ‘A well-prepared case will always help the Home Office to make the correct decision the first time,’ she said.
There has been much media coverage of people crossing the Channel in small boats1See, for example, Diane Taylor, ‘Home Office deporting migrants who cross Channel in small boats’, Guardian, 21 May 2020.
and Patel referred to the risks involved in her speech. Lenegan pointed out that this needs to be seen in the context of a significant decrease in asylum claims this year: there were 8,455 claims between January and March 2020, falling to 4,850 in the next quarter (Immigration statistics: asylum applications, initial decisions and resettlement
, Home Office, 27 August 2020, table Asy_D01).
The government closed the asylum resettlement scheme in March, in reaction to the COVID 19 pandemic. The resettlement scheme is the only legal option for asylum-seekers to enter the UK safely and campaigners have criticised the government for not reopening it.2May Bulman, ‘“No earthly reason’: Thousands of refugees denied sanctuary in UK after settlement scheme frozen during lockdown’, Independent, 28 August 2020.
‘Given the volume of removals that are taking place,’ said Lenegan, ‘it is difficult to understand why the government has not restarted resettlement.’ She believes that ‘the absence of a safe and legal route to the UK is likely to impact on numbers of people attempting to cross the Channel by boat’.
Patel promised to have the new system in place by next year, ‘after decades of inaction by successive governments’. Carol Storer, LAG’s interim director, said: ‘Contrary to what the home secretary says, immigration and asylum policy is not an area in which recent governments have been inactive. In the past 30 years, there have been over 180 Home Office policy and legislative changes
. Many of these changes, though, have had little benefit to anyone, least of all for people fleeing persecution. The home secretary’s attack on immigration lawyers does not bode well for the motives behind this latest addition.’