Leading lawyers have been accused of undermining the legal system by declaring that they will not prosecute climate activists.
Around 120 top legal professionals are set to sign a ‘Declaration of Conscience’ vowing to refuse their services in prosecuting protesters from eco-groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.
Amid accusations of virtue signalling, the group – who call themselves ‘Lawyers are Responsible’ – will also refuse to act on behalf of clients involved in oil and gas on the grounds that they are destroying the environment.
Prominent lawyers understood to be involved are Jolyon Maugham KC, founder of the Good Law Project, and Sir Geoffrey Bindman KC, chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights.
The move triggered fierce condemnation last night from senior members of the legal profession, who accused the group of undermining the convention that everyone is entitled to fair legal representation.
Prominent lawyers understood to be involved are Jolyon Maugham KC (pictured: left), founder of the Good Law Project, and Sir Geoffrey Bindman KC (pictured: right), chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights
Tory MP Robert Buckland, a King’s Counsel and former justice secretary, called the declaration ‘very odd’, saying: ‘There are plenty of people lawyers represent who are deeply unpleasant and deeply unpopular, such as rapists and paedophiles.
The signatories? Legal grandees, a disbarred activist and a fox killer
Jolyon Maugham KC
The director of the Good Law Project, which has issued legal proceedings against the Met Police’s handling of Partygate. Maugham, pictured, narrowly avoided prosecution in 2019 after admitting he had clubbed a fox to death with a baseball bat.
Tim Crosland, ex-barrister
Director of Plan B Earth, a campaign group that aims to bring legal action against governments it decrees are in breach of climate commitments. He is organising the declaration. He was banned from practising as a barrister this year after leaking the Supreme Court’s legal decision on the Heathrow expansion.
Sir Geoffrey Bindman KC
One of the UK’s most respected human rights lawyers. He was chair of the British Institute of Human Rights and is a member of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights.
Prof Leslie Thomas KC
He specialises in claims against the police and other public bodies and gained recognition for representing 11 families of Hillsborough victims in 2014. He said he does not intend to abandon the cab rank rule.
‘But they are entitled to a fair trial. When lawyers start picking and choosing, in a way it undermines the independence of the legal profession.
The importance of that independence is not about one’s individual views but the interests of justice, and I do think that’s a very odd approach to take, frankly, and not really consistent with the role of a lawyer.
‘When you are a lawyer, you put your personal views aside… and you represent clients without fear or favour.
‘This declaration doesn’t sit very well with that principle.’
Another senior legal figure, who did not want to be named, said: ‘It seems absurd, a piece of virtue signalling by Lefty lawyers – that’s how it comes across to me.’
In English law, the so-called cab rank rule means a barrister must take a case that is within their knowledge and expertise, provided they are free to do so, no matter how unpalatable the cause.
It is described as ‘an essential safeguard of access to justice, the public interest, and the rule of law’ by the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers.
Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Cox KC, a former attorney general, said last night: ‘It’s difficult to see, given the very clear rules that the profession requires, how you could justify refusing instructions for political reasons…
‘It’s equally deplorable to attack any barrister for the nature of their client, whether it be from the Left or from the Right… [a lawyer] is as much beholden to or as much interested in or connected with the political views of his client as a plumber is to his client, or a doctor to his basement.’
And Nick Vineall KC, head of the Bar Council, which represents barristers, said of the declaration: ‘I’ve no doubt these views are genuinely held and derive from good intentions. But I believe the greater good is better served by the long-established approach that we’ve got a job to do as a profession.’
Around 120 top legal professionals are set to sign a ‘Declaration of Conscience’ vowing to refuse their services in prosecuting protesters from eco-groups
Protestors celebrated outside Westminster Magistrates Court in central London, after being cleared of tampering with an oil tanker on January 25, 2023
As well as Mr Maugham and Sir Geoffrey, it is understood Professor Leslie Thomas KC, the Gresham Professor of Law, will sign the declaration. Doing so could make lawyers subject to disciplinary proceedings. Mr Thomas said: ‘The cab rank rule does not prevent barristers from expressing their opinions or campaigning for causes they believe in.
‘Signing the [declaration] does not mean I reject the cab rank rule or that I would refuse to act for any client who instructs me in accordance with it. It simply means I support the right of lawyers to take a stand against new fossil fuel projects and to defend those who peacefully protest against them.’
Matt Hutchings KC, a commercial lawyer and one of the drafters of the declaration, said: ‘We are looking at a global catastrophe. The UK needs to divest from fossil fuels and invest in alternatives far more rapidly than we are.
‘It is imperative that everyone, including lawyers, does what they can to make this happen.’