Has the law become partisan?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The campaigning barrister Jolyon Maugham KC recently declared his support for ‘a beautiful idea’: that lawyers should refuse to prosecute climate protesters or to act for the fossil fuel industry. This, he declared in a Guardian article, is because the law is sometimes wrong and ugly.

Maugham’s stance was supported by over 100 lawyers who signed-up to a Declaration of Conscience.  But it was also criticised by those who saw it as a form of virtue signalling that challenged the objectivity of law and its ability to serve justice.  After all, if lawyers could champion their right to snub those accused of ‘ecocide’ then this would surely be a principle that would impede the ability of those accused of less serious harms to get the lawyers their cases deserved.

Law’s practitioners have traditionally been valued and seen as ‘learned’ because of the service they provide in upholding the rule of law.  The ‘beautiful idea’ that still energises many lawyers is their desire to master their craft with knowledge, wisdom and persuasive arguments.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t lawyers decide which clients to act for? For decades, left-wing lawyers have often chosen to defend, rather than prosecute, and to act for tenants, employees and migrants rather than for landlords, employers and the Home Office. With plenty of other lawyers prepared to act for the other side, this hasn’t undermined the rule of law.

Should lawyers be dispassionate or should they be valued for their political beliefs? Could it be true that the passionate lawyer makes the better lawyer?

Jon Holbrook
barrister; writer, spiked, Critic, Conservative Woman

Laurie Laybourn
researcher; writer; associate fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research; co-author, Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown

Anna Loutfi
equality and human rights barrister; consultant, The Bad Law Project

Lord Ken Macdonald KC
barrister, Matrix Chambers; crossbench peer

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom; director, Freedom Law Clinic