Johnson and Patel are baiting lawyers to distract from the real threat to our freedoms | Simon Jenkins

Eight hundred legal eagles are up in arms. They are furious with Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, accusing them of being “lefty lawyers” and “do-gooders”, seeking to leave the “whole” criminal justice system “hamstrung”. At this month’s Tory party conference, the two politicians accused them in one voice of indefensibly exploiting a “broken” immigration appeal system in the interest of their clients.

The lawyers are shocked at what is the latest of a series of attacks on them by ministers. In a letter sent to the Guardian, the lawyers demand that Johnson apologises, ends his hostility and stops endangering the “personal safety of lawyers and others working for the justice system”. One man is facing terror charges for allegedly visiting an immigration law office with a large knife and threatening to kill a member of staff.

The letter reads as if our learned friends have had a bad wig day. The cause of the trouble is undoubtedly the fact that so many appeals against the migration deportation system are being upheld in the claimant’s favour. From the government’s point of view, this has rendered it virtually inoperable. This is a politically inflammable area of public policy, with harsh words likely to be spoken.

As far as immigration is concerned, there is no suggestion that anyone is breaking the law, as devised by Patel’s own Home Office. Clearly Johnson and Patel are happy to milk its inadequacies for political gain. But the law is theirs to change. The lawyer’s job, indeed duty, is to test the current one to its limits on behalf of a client. We might perhaps realise that Johnson’s hostility is bound up in his own determination to break the law with his internal market bill, leading to the resignation of his own senior lawyers.

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Johnson’s 2019 manifesto complained that judicial review is being “abused to conduct politics by another means or to cause needless delay”. That is what happens when bad laws are introduced by governments. The rule of law establishes judicial oversight of their implementation so as to defend citizens against the cavalier abuse of power by ministers and officials. A sure sign of an ill-written, illiberal law is a rash of judicial reviews – planning being another a case in point.

Johnson’s solution was to order an inquiry into judicial review – or how to curb it – chaired by a former Tory justice minister, Edward Faulks. The prime minister seeks protection for his ministers against badly drafted laws by limiting the protection the courts afford to victims. The inquiry is about to report. As the former lord chancellor David Gauke wrote in the Guardian last week, that is why Johnson chooses “to speak of lawyers as enemies of the people”.

Lawyers should not rise to the bait. They should gird their loins to campaign in favour of judicial review, the curbing of which would be a threat to every free citizen, a threat to the rule of law itself.


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