Government is ‘monitoring’ human rights lawyers, minister admits
Home Office minister Robert Jenrick accused human rights lawyers of ‘abusing’ law and suggested they were being spied on
The government is “monitoring” human rights lawyers, a Home Office minister has admitted in Parliament.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick made the extraordinary statement during a debate in Parliament on Monday about far-right protests in Liverpool, after claiming that human right lawyers “exploit and abuse our laws”.
It comes two years after Britain’s top lawyers warned the government that its inflammatory rhetoric about the legal profession was putting people at risk in the wake of a knife attack.
Jenrick was responding to a question from Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who had challenged him to provide evidence for his claim that lawyers were abusing the law.
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The minister did not do so, but said: “We are monitoring the activities, as it so happens, of a small number of legal practitioners, but it is not appropriate for me to discuss that here.”
Human rights lawyers said the comments could lead to more violence and demanded answers about the extent of the surveillance and its legality.
Jenrick also confirmed that the Home Office was also monitoring the far-right organisations responsible for a riot outside a hotel used to temporarily house asylum seekers in Knowsley, Liverpool.
It comes as the first stage of a years-long inquiry into state spying on activists and trade unions concludes this week.
At the same debate, MPs criticised home secretary Suella Braverman for using rhetoric that risked inspiring far-right attacks.
“This is a wake-up call for those of us who want a society in which all are welcome,” said Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool, West Derby.
“The words and the tone of [MPs] and the media matter hugely, so will the government commit themselves to ensuring that there is an end to the hateful rhetoric that demonises and dehumanises people?”
Mick Whitley, Labour MP for Birkenhead, said that those who joined protests organised by the far-right last weekend “had been stoked into hatred by the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that we hear all too often on the government side of the House”.
In 2020, a London law firm accused former home secretary Priti Patel of inspiring an attack on its staff.
Members of the firm were attacked and injured by a man with a large knife just days after Patel gave a speech claiming that “activist lawyers” were frustrating the removal of migrants.
Cavan Medlock has denied involvement in a terrorist plot, and is due to face trial later this year.
A senior source at a refugee charity told openDemocracy that the attack had prompted several organisations to up their security for fear of similar reprisals.
A month after the attack, Patel repeated her claims that those who represent asylum seekers were “defending the indefensible” and hit out again at “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” in her Conservative Party conference speech.
Boris Johnson also claimed the entire criminal justice system was “being hamstrung by lefty human rights lawyers” in his keynote speech at the same event.
The then chair of the Bar Council, Amanda Pinto QC, wrote to the prime minister and home secretary following the speeches urging them to withdraw their comments, the Observer reported.
“I urge you to withdraw your comments and to reassure thousands of key workers – including lawyers employed by your own government – that they are not being attacked by their prime minister for their important contribution to the justice system,” she wrote.
Pinto told openDemocracy that she never received a reply to her letter and said that Jenrick's comments were dangerous for both lawyers and society.
"If what lawyers are doing is applying the law on behalf of their client, quite properly, but they're being castigated for it it's, in effect, a means of shutting down proper legal challenges where the government doesn't like what is being said."
Law firms who spoke to openDemocracy reacted with dismay and concern to Jenrick’s remarks and said it could heighten the risk of violence they already face.
Jamie Beagent, head of the human rights department at law firm Leigh Day, said:“We are deeply concerned to hear yet more unsupported allegations being made against the legal profession by ministers. The government’s rhetoric is, at best, careless and risks exacerbating the already febrile atmosphere it has created. We fear that this inappropriate rhetoric may lead to more violence being perpetrated against immigrants and lawyers.
“We are also concerned by the admission in parliament of the apparent state-monitoring of independent legal professionals. More details are needed before we can comment further but there must be serious question marks over the legal basis and the constitutional propriety of such action.”
Sarah Hemingway, a human rights law barrister at Garden Court Chambers, added: “There are some countries in the world where human rights lawyers are targeted and threatened by the state. Great Britain should not be listed among them. We are a well-established democracy where the rule of law is essential to the proper functioning of society. What Robert Jenrick says about monitoring the activities of human rights lawyers, if it is true, could well be illegal and he has very serious questions to answer about such activity on the part of the government.”
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