Leslie Thomas QC on the vital role of human rights lawyers in these turbulent times.
Last Sunday, I was elected Chair and Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers.
Garden Court has a distinguished history of defending human rights, holding the state to account and promoting social justice through the law. Our chambers was founded over 40 years ago and our motto is ‘Do right, fear no-one’. I joined Garden Court as a barrister 26 years ago and I’m immensely proud of our ethos. For our chambers and for me personally, these words are more than just a motto. They embody our daily work to uphold the rule of law and protect fundamental rights and freedoms, often in the face of powerful opponents.
Our practice areas include human rights claims, actions against the police for wrongdoing, criminal defence, immigration and asylum claims, inquests for bereaved families, family and care proceedings, social housing claims for tenants and the homeless, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma rights and public law challenges against the state.
Our work across these areas has never been more important as we witness progressive values, access to justice and human rights protections under attack on multiple fronts, both at home and abroad.
Recently we have seen sections of the media and certain politicians demonising refugees and immigrants as potential terrorists or scroungers. President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US is the most recent and shameful example of the politics of hate, intolerance and division. Moreover, his Executive Order is a clear breach of international human rights obligations.
The inability of our own Prime Minister to swiftly condemn Trump’s Muslim ban was no less shameful, sparking massive demonstrations in London where thousands of protestors – including many Garden Court barristers - brought Whitehall to a standstill.
At home, we continue to see swingeing cuts to legal aid in the UK, which have decimated access to justice leaving the poorest and most vulnerable in society without essential legal advice and support.
We have a Government committed to repealing the Human Rights Act, and swathes of human rights protections under EU law will be lost after Brexit, not least because the UK will no-longer be bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Without the Human Rights Act (HRA), there might never have been a second inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, to finally secure justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who tragically died. The HRA was also instrumental in securing state and police accountability for the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. There are countless other cases where our barristers use the HRA to hold the state to account.
Faced with multiple threats to our fundamental rights, I believe human rights lawyers are in a unique position to use their knowledge of the law and their advocacy skills to make the strongest possible case for continued human rights protections post Brexit. In these difficult times, we have a vital role to play in challenging prejudice, discrimination and the unlawful exercise of power.
We can also make a difference through the courts by pursuing carefully targeted test cases. We can make our voices heard through social and mainstream media. And we can put pressure on our politicians through lobbying and protest, together with other activists who share our values.
Now is the time for action. Do right, fear no-one!