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Friday, 7 October 2016

You don't protect the vulnerable by abolishing their rights

Whatever else has changed with the Conservative Party in recent months, they have not yet discovered any affection for lawyers. Or rather they haven’t discovered affection for those lawyers who fight for the rights of ordinary people.

In her speech to the party faithful this week, Theresa May promised to never again let -  ‘activist left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave the men and women of our armed forces’. She returned to a favourite Conservative Party theme – opting out of our human rights obligations. She said that the government would use this power during times of conflict so that soldiers could not be sued.

This is not in fact as easy as it sounds. Nations do have the right to suspend their obligations during times of emergency. But this does not extend to – “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the prohibition of slavery and servitude, and the rule of “no punishment without law”. This is of course exactly the sort of behaviour that leads to legal actions. So will she try and remove these rights as well?  Surely we do not want to be seen as a nation that would ever tolerate torture or degrading treatment or punishment. Would anyone guilty of such behaviour be ‘the bravest of the brave’?

Lawyers who bring actions against wrongdoers are neither left wing, nor activists. They are simply doing their job to ensure that the rule of law is enforced and that perpetrators are held to account. Her speech was heavily criticised by leading QC and former UN judge Geoffrey Robertson who said - “These actions have been war crimes for centuries and Mrs May, quite disgracefully, wants to cover them up when they are committed – and it is a matter of record that they are occasionally committed – by British forces.”

Would our Prime minister really want to guarantee the immunity of those responsible for the torture and death of Baha Mousa?  -

A spokesman for the PM later explained that Mrs May –

"always said it's right to investigate legitimate instances, but it's the industry of vexatious claims that must end". 

But you cannot investigate legitimate cases if the right not to be abused is removed.

I would be the first to criticise any lawyers who fabricated these claims. They deserve all they get. They should be ‘drummed out of the profession’, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson. But you don’t solve that problem by sweeping away the rights of the vulnerable. We already have a civil justice system for testing the validity of complaints. It is the envy of the world. It does not need help from politicians.

Genuine victims should be compensated and the guilty should be punished.

To simply abolish the right helps nobody.

To then attack the hard working lawyers – who are amongst the lowest paid in the profession just adds insult to injury.

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