24 March 2023

Lawyers refusing to prosecute eco-warriors sends a terrible message


I’ve often thought that Shakespeare had it about right in Henry IV, Part II, with the line ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ Despite my mother’s dream that I would grow up and become a barrister, my impression of the legal profession is that it is largely a sinecure for grand-standing bores and over-privileged Prospect readers – who, incidentally, tend to be the same people.

Now it transpires that 120 of our finest legal minds are signing a ‘Declaration of Conscience’ stating they will not prosecute eco-protestors brought before the courts. This motley crew of prominent KCs include Jolyon Maugham, the esteemed Kimono-wearing fox-murderer and taxpayers’-money-spaffer, and Sir Geoffrey Bindman, a member of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and a former personal lawyer for party luminary Keith Vaz. Other potential signatories include experts in claims against the police, and a director of Plan B Earth – a group which mounts legal challenges against governments that fail various climate targets. 

Now, I don’t doubt that the environmental beliefs of these signatories are wholly sincere. Whilst I like to market myself as the world’s first pro-climate change commentator (in the hope of a sponsorship deal from the English wine industry), the ramping up of environmental activism in recent years reflects a growing concern, especially amongst my generation, that the planet is facing imminent doom and something must be done.

That they don’t see this as an opportunity to drink more of this country’s excellent and impressive arrays of whites, rose and red wines is entirely their business – and polling suggests the public are broadly behind the Net Zero, stuff global warming, save Johnny polar bear agenda. But the public also do not like when these protests get out of hand. 

Roadblocks, spray painting buildings, the addition of a tomato soup glaze to the odd Van Gogh: more than 50% disapproval. In fact, they leave over-40s less willing to take action on climate change, and more likely to side with the statement that ‘climate action will do nothing but make us all colder and poorer’.

Defending the tactics of these protestors therefore helps alienate the environmental movement from the public, since it involves siding with groups that struggle to comprehend that making the lives of ordinary commuters a misery is not a great way to win their support.  Perhaps it’s the sort of strategic thinking you’d expect from the same man who thought taking on the vaccine taskforce might win him some good headlines. 

Might there also be a bit of good old-fashioned class solidarity involved her too? When a judge lets off Clare, Jessica, and Rupert for graffitiing the Global Warming Policy Foundation, he is keeping the middle-class end up. Perhaps our liberal legal establishment is only making sure there aren’t a few cross words at their next dinner-party.

The poor dears who were so recently moaning about the single market during those delightful two weeks in Verbier are now preoccupied by the ‘climate crisis’. To prove their virtuous credentials, their parents’ generation need to make sure they remain on trend. If that means refusing to prosecute Arabella for defiling a few works in-between her studies at the Courtauld then so be it. 

There is an element of emptiness about the whole gesture, of course, since it’s unlikely that many of these lawyers would ever be asked to prosecute eco-warriors anyway.

But this kind of lawyerly activism still sticks in the craw because it eats into our sense of the rule of law and the ‘cab rank’ principle, whereby lawyers act for clients regardless of their personal feelings towards the individual. Although in reality that principle may be rather malleable (as Jolyon himself notes here), the idea that everyone deserves representation is at the heart of our legal system. As the former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland puts it: ‘When lawyers start picking and choosing, in a way it undermines the independence of the legal profession.’

But the worst thing about all this is the sheer hypocrisy. These are some of the same Twitter KCs who fly into hysteria about the end of the rule of the law and the imminent arrival of the Gestapo every time Suella Braverman sneezes. Yet they see no problem in bringing their own politics into things by tacitly suggesting some law-breaking is permissible if your cause is sufficiently righteous.

I would say that it leaves me foxed. But I wouldn’t want Maugham to reach for his baseball bat.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.