Michael Fallon, the UK Defense Secretary, and British Prime Minister Theresa May have a lot to think about in the aftermath of the General Election. But one thing they need to address is the Leigh Day ruling quietly handed down last Friday.
Despite the current political turmoil, it is vital that May and Fallon acknowledge this important ruling – which cleared a leading human rights law firm of professional misconduct over claims it brought against the Ministry of Defense (MoD) about alleged torture and murder by British forces in Iraq -as well as their own role in the case.
As it happens, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal cleared Leigh Day and three of its lawyers of all charge. But what is alarming about the case is the role of the government. The case was brought after pressure from the MoD, and in an atmosphere where Fallon, May, and May’s predecessor David Cameron have made regular public attacks on lawyers who bring human rights cases against the MoD. Last year, May said she would not allow “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers” to “harass the bravest of the brave,” while Fallon said “we don’t need these ambulance-chasing British law firms.” While the disbarring of a prominent lawyer from another law firm involved in the Iraq cases undoubtedly provided ammunition for these attacks, it in no way justifies the government’s attempt to interfere with efforts to pursue accountability and justice for clients.
This hostility toward lawyers was also reflected in the Conservative party election manifesto, which promised new regulations for “unscrupulous” law firms that issued “vexatious” claims against the armed forces. It also said British troops would no longer be subject to the European Court of Human Rights, without specifying how. Fallon had previously announced he will shut down the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, a body investigating allegations of war crimes by British forces in Iraq, later this month, before it can finish its work.
The new UK parliament should reject any further attempts to put the MoD and its employees beyond the reach of the law, be it related to human rights violations or war crimes. Lawyers and law firms are rightly subject to oversight, but regulators need to be fully independent and free from government pressure. May and Fallon should recognise the basic principle of the rule of law, which demands that lawyers can bring cases against the government without risking retaliation for doing so.