Respect for the rule of law is in jeopardy in the UK

Law updates

There is mounting anxiety in the UK legal profession that respect for the rule of law in this country is declining. The current climate and legislation due to be considered in the forthcoming parliamentary term are cause for serious concern.

The concept of the rule of law means that laws are made democratically, everyone is protected by and accountable to the same laws — including government — with independent courts there to uphold these in a way that is accessible, fair and efficient. 

That arrangement is undermined if a government takes the view that laws, international or domestic, can be broken. Recently the UK has treated international agreements it entered into freely with a disregard that brings Britain’s reliability as a partner into question.

Last year, the government pitched, then hastily ditched, clauses in the internal market bill that would have put the UK in breach of international law. In the overseas operations bill, it considered derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights and creating a presumption against prosecution for war crimes, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity, ringing alarm bells at the UN and the International Criminal Court. Many of these proposals were dropped from the final act, but the fact they were included in the bill in the first place again showed a willingness to override legal norms.

There are significant concerns over whether the nationality and borders bill, which seeks to reset the UK asylum system, would comply with international law.

Britain’s respect for the rule of law is one of the reasons its justice system has long been the envy of the world. Solicitors and barristers have a statutory duty, enshrined in the Legal Services Act, to behave with independence and integrity. They represent their clients and help apply the laws dictated by parliament. Everyone has the right to legal representation and every single case is judged on merit. It is the role of the justice system to determine the validity of claims without fear or favour. This function is and must remain independent of government, media and public opinion.

Challenging this separation, ministers and sections of the media have derided judges as “enemies of the people” and lawyers as leftwing “activists”. It is dangerous for government, in particular, to attack legal professionals for just doing their jobs, and to do so undermines the framework of laws made by parliament.

New legislation threatens to chip away further at the system’s checks and balances. The judicial review and courts bill may set a precedent for government to remove its own actions from the scope of legal challenges, and we have yet to see promised proposals for the Human Rights Act, which so many rely on to protect and uphold their rights.

The rule of law is a largely invisible bedrock supporting stable nations. It provides security and predictability for citizens, business and international partners. And it underpins trust — in the state, among citizens and between parties to agreements.

A healthy justice system is integral to social and economic wellbeing. The LexisNexis Rule of Law Impact Tracker shows a direct correlation between the rule of law and the growth of per capita gross domestic product.

Britain’s commitment to the rule of law is key to attracting international business and to our credibility when calling out human rights abuses abroad. Putting the UK’s reputation as a trustworthy and predictable trade partner in doubt could have a long-term effect on this country’s standing and on our ability to strike deals with other countries.

The effects could be felt not just in government, but by businesses seeking to trade internationally and by families and consumers who rely on recognition of legal frameworks across borders. 

The writer is president of the Law Society of England and Wales

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