‘Small boats’, barges and ‘lefty lawyers’: the media campaign that went wrong

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The Government’s media campaign titled ‘Small Boats Week’ began on 6th August. Its purpose was to highlight the steps it was taking to tackle small boat channel crossings. In reality, it was a week of chaos and controversy. The headlines were dominated by Bibby Stockholm, the barge intended to house asylum seekers, which was soon evacuated after Legionella bacteria was found onboard. However, beyond the barge, ‘Small Boats Week’ also saw an important feud between supposedly “lefty lawyers” and the Government, drawing attention to the Conservative’s growing fixation on professionals acting to provide asylum seekers with their human right: legal representation.

A central figure in this story is Jacqueline McKenzie, an immigration and asylum lawyer. McKenzie told the Guardian that she had been approached by several reporters from right-leaning media publications including the Sun and the Telegraph. These reporters were “deliberately or inadvertently” sent a dossier by the Conservative Campaign Headquarters that detailed McKenzie’s links to the Labour Party. Shortly after, both The Sun and The Telegraph published articles claiming McKenzie’s representation of clients facing deportation to Rwanda was politically motivated. The basis for this claim was that McKenzie is an unpaid volunteer for a working group set up by Labour to look at race disparities. Following the articles, McKenzie was subject to abuse including a threat to drown her “like an asylum seeker”.

It was a week of chaos and controversy.

McKenzie was singled out; however, conservative figures, including Rishi Sunak and Lee Anderson, have frequently claimed that “lefty lawyers” are a growing threat. McKenzie is just one of many lawyers who have been accused of thwarting the success of government policies including the Rwanda plan and Bibby Stockholm. These claims follow reports that some immigration lawyers are acting improperly by coaching asylum seekers to falsely make up backstories of abuse.

The chair of the Bar Council, Nick Vineall, has responded to these events. Vineall acknowledged that there have been rare cases of immigration lawyers who have acted improperly, however emphasises that the vast majority, including McKenzie, are simply doing their jobs to uphold the rule of law. Vineall released a joint statement with Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society which condemned the recent treatment of immigration lawyers. It stated: “No lawyer should be criticised, or made the subject of a targeted campaign, for doing their job. Everyone is entitled to legal representation and it is a United Nations basic principle that lawyers should not be identified with the causes of their clients”

“No lawyer should be criticised, or made the subject of a targeted campaign, for doing their job. Everyone is entitled to legal representation and it is a United Nations basic principle that lawyers should not be identified with the causes of their clients.”

Law society

On BBC Today Alex Chalk, the Conservative justice secretary, was asked if he felt asylum lawyers were politically motivated “lefty lawyers”. Chalk responded: “There has been a growing and I think regrettable trend for lawyers to actively parade their politics and to identify more with their clients”. This claim was disputed by solicitor and legal affairs journalist, Joshua Rozenberg, who said “Chalk has produced no evidence to support this thesis. I have not noticed any such change myself”.

The reality is that lawyers, like all of us, have political affiliations. However, to claim that immigration lawyers are motivated by a desire to undermine Conservative policies is an unjust and dangerous accusation. Refugees are entitled, like anyone, to legal representation. Lawyers who take up this role, and follow correct legal practices, should not be characterised as political activists motivated by a desire to prevent the success of Conservative policy. Such a characterisation undermines the rule of law and implies that upholding laws that challenge government policy is somehow improper behaviour. Ultimately, the job of a lawyer is to support their client, not to support the government. Lawyers must be free to do their job without fear that doing so will leave them vulnerable to attacks from the media and politicians.

Image: David Castor via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “‘Small boats’, barges and ‘lefty lawyers’: the media campaign that went wrong

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