Theresa May has been strongly criticised by human rights lawyers for launching a "cheap shot" at their profession in a major speech this week.
The prime minister said in her closing speech at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday: "We will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s armed forces."
She was referring to legal action launched by British lawyers on behalf of Iraqi and Afghan citizens who claim they were the victims of alleged abuse by British soldiers. Three servicemen are reportedly facing prosecution for manslaughter over the death of an Iraqi teenager 13 years ago.
But while May's comment was specifically about action against the armed forces, leading barristers have seen it as an attack on human rights practice generally.
Mark George QC, of Garden Court Chambers, who acted for 22 of the families represented in the Hillsborough inquest earlier this year, pointed out that the Home Office under Theresa May funded the families’ case and paid for human rights lawyers to represent them.
“I reminded myself of the speech she made in parliament when the [Hillsborough inquest] jury conclusions came out, and while she didn’t say anything about the lawyers and I wouldn’t expect her to, it did occur to me that we had done quite a lot of work to make sure that the families got justice and she helped to fund it and she was quite keen on us at that point," he told BuzzFeed News.
"And here we are six months down the line and it’s back to the usual slagging off these 'left-wing lawyers'."
George said it was "irresponsible" for someone in May's position to attack lawyers at a time when legal aid is being cut back.
"I think you’d find that most lawyers who do legal aid work feel pretty unloved these days. We’ve suffered years of pay cuts, whole areas of work taken away from public funding, which impacts on millions of ordinary people who can’t afford to pay for legal advice – and then to be slagged off by the PM in a cheap shot was a bit of a red rag to me."
Hugh Southey QC of Matrix Chambers told BuzzFeed News the speech was political, but he still found May’s comment troubling.
“You can argue about where the balance should be struck in law and whether there should be greater protection for troops," he said, "but attacking the individual lawyers fails to recognise that these people are there to do the best job for their client – it’s at the heart of a society like ours, that believes in the rule of law, that you respect what lawyers are doing and let them get on with it.
"Whereas five years ago there was a recognition that the sorts of things that human rights lawyers do are annoying but valuable, there is now this idea that they are to blame and should be attacked, and that is worrying as it has the potential to undermine the rule of law."
For Adam Wagner, human rights and public law barrister at One Crown Office Row, the issue was not about left-versus-right politics but about fundamental rights:
"Human rights laws have been an important tool for the families of people who have suffered abuse to ensure that proper investigations are held. Soldiers themselves have also used human rights laws to force the Ministry of Defence into concessions over inadequate equipment and training.
"Soldiers themselves have also used human rights laws to force the MoD into concessions over inadequate equipment and training."
Wagner accepted there has also been abuse of the UK legal system by people making false claims, which is distressing to the soldiers being accused, and suggested a system whereby bogus claims are rooted out and illegal behaviour properly investigated.
"That is possible but difficult," he said, "and it won’t be helped by wholly disowning human rights laws or by launching politically motivated and crude attacks on lawyers."
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.