Attacks on lawyers by agents of the state must stop - Bar Chief tells MPs and Peers

23 January 2018

Hard international law is needed to protect lawyers who have been subject to threats and attacks, often carried out by state agencies and individuals, including assault, harassment, imprisonment, surveillance, enforced disappearance, and even murder, the Bar Council has said.

 The call comes ahead of a crucial vote in Strasbourg tomorrow where UK members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will vote on a motion to draft a European Convention on the profession of lawyer.

Chair of the Bar, Andrew Walker QC said:"In the last two years we have seen a slew of attacks on legal professionals. These are often carried out by state actors attempting to prevent lawyers from doing the crucial job of enforcing the legal and human rights of their citizens and of holding Governments to account.

"The Rule of Law protects citizens against excessive state power, and without an independent legal profession to act fearlessly on behalf of the people, that protection ceases to exist. It then becomes much easier for Governments to ignore the mistreatment of those who cause them trouble, to cover up poor decision-making and inappropriate action, and physically to abuse and intimidate their opponents. Existing safeguards have not been fully effective, and a binding instrument in international law is needed to protect this vital aspect of the Rule of Law."

According to PACE rapporteur, Ms Sabien Lahaye Battheu, a string of attacks has taken place in the last 12 months alone. In 2017, the home of a Greek lawyer representing Syrian refugees was raided by police, and a Georgian lawyer was assaulted by a chief of police after giving advice to his client, before then being accused by the Ministry of Justice of having 'provoked' the attack.

Following the failed coup in Turkey, hundreds of lawyers were arrested, including 18 who had represented a University lecturer and teacher who were dismissed under emergency decree-laws. In the Russian Federation, lawyers have been threatened with disbarment after pursuing their clients' allegations of torture by police, and been assaulted by police and prevented from representing clients.

Andrew Walker QC said: "Attacks on lawyers are an assault on the rights of the citizens they serve, and it is particularly worrying to find such attacks taking place in member countries of the Council of Europe.

"We are therefore urging the 18 UK MPs and peers who sit in the Parliamentary Assembly to vote in favour of drawing up this convention.

"The first action point in the despot's playbook is to intimidate and undermine the members of the legal profession who are standing up to them and to whom citizens turn when they are mistreated by the state.

"The UK has a long history of commitment to the Rule of Law. We would like to see the UK continue to take the lead in upholding it on the world stage, and to use its influence at an international level to foster agreement and clarity on what the Rule of Law means and how it can be sustained in practice, so as to enable citizens effectively to enforce the rights to which they are entitled. Access to Justice for all, in particular those who are economically weak, is at the core of this project, as is the defence of the lawyers who seek to provide it.

"We hope the representatives of member countries in the Council of Europe - and most especially those from the UK - will show themselves to be determined to help prevent threats such as these to the Rule of Law anywhere in Europe.  A convention would show the way, and help all Governments to live up to the highest standards of justice and fairness."

Notes to editors

  1. On 24 January, the PACE will vote on a draft recommendation, unanimously adopted by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on 12 December 2017, requesting that the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers draft and adopt a European Convention on the profession of lawyer. 

  2. The Chair of the Bar, Andrew Walker QC, has written to the 18 parliamentarians are members of PACE to support the initiative of a convention with their vote. 

  3. The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) has recommended that the convention should focus on legal professional privilege and the independence of legal professions and their representative bodies, and also emphasise the obligations on national authorities to respect and protect the free exercise of the profession of lawyer and to promote the profession's role in ensuring the effectiveness of the judicial system and protecting human rights and the Rule of Law. 

  4. Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 and Press@BarCouncil.org.uk

  5. The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales. It promotes: 

  • The Bar's high quality specialist advocacy and advisory services

  • Fair access to justice for all

  • The highest standards of ethics, equality and diversity across the profession, and

  • The development of business opportunities for barristers at home and abroad.

The General Council of the Bar is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board.