In praise of ‘activist human rights lawyers’

fiona-bawdonLiberty director hits back at government demonisation of profession, by Fiona Bawdon

Liberty director Martha Spurrier warned government ministers ‘who put a toe out of line’ that ‘activist human rights lawyers’ will come down on them ‘like a ton of bricks’.

Spurrier, who until earlier this year was a barrister at Doughty Street was speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference, just days after prime minister Theresa May warned ‘activist, left wing human rights lawyers’ that they would not be allowed to ‘harangue’ British troops.

In a combative speech, Spurrier hit back at the ‘demonising’ of lawyers like her and those in the audience. ‘I am an activist human rights lawyer. We are watching Theresa May and Amber Rudd and Liz Truss and Michael Fallon, and politicians across the spectrum. We will not be cowed by your cuts, nor your spin, nor your cumbersome computer systems. If you put a toe out of line, we will come down on you like a ton of bricks, because we are activist human rights lawyers, and that is what we do.’

Spurrier singled out the administrative detention of migrants for particular condemnation. Lawyers had ‘an obligation to speak very loudly’ about the inhumane way detained migrants were treated and had their rights breached.

Migrants held for administrative reasons made up a third of the prison population. ‘They are not serving criminal sentences. The fact of their detention has not been authorised by a judge – and there’s a very real risk it will never be authorised by a judge. They don’t know how long they will be detained for. They are just there for the convenience of the state.’

‘Horrible rhetoric’ about migrants from successive governments had led to a situation where they are treated with ‘disdain’, even by some lawyers, she added. Spurrier recounted the case of a man held in administrative detention who had become seriously mentally ill. ‘He thought he had friends living in he pipes of his cell. He would put food down the plughole for them. Sometimes, he thought he was the King of Scotland. ‘

Defending a challenge to his continued detention, the Home Office lawyer ‘made the argument that because he thought he was the King of Scotland, he thought he was living in a palace, rather than a cell, so was actually having quite a nice time. For any lawyer to run an argument of that kind, gives an indication of the level of disrespect that migrants face.’

Lawyers had to keep bringing challenges and chipping away at ‘this awful system’, said Spurrier. ‘This fight is winnable. If we start to dismantle the worst edges of this, I really think we can move in to deal with the rest of it.’



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