Attorney general defends judges criticised over Brexit ruling
The attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, has defended the judges in the case – even though he disagrees with their ruling.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting at the Law Society in London, the MP for Kenilworth and Southam, who is leading the government’s legal team, promised that ministers would uphold the rule of law.
Wright’s statement comes after , which labelled the three judges in the high court article 50 case “enemies of the people”.
On Thursday, the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales of the treaty of European Union initiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Addressing a meeting on pro bono legal work, Wright said: “The claimants in this and every other case are entitled to bring their case and to have it heard by the court and are entitled to do so without being harassed or intimidated. The judges in this case are entitled to decide this case in any way they choose in accordance with their judgment.
“I’m sure they would accept they are unlikely to decide so without criticism. But the principles [of the rule of law] remain critical in cases as big and fundamental as this one.
“I can and do defend those principles at the same time that I disagree respectfully with the court. But the good news is that there’s a mechanism to allow those who disagree. It’s called an appeal and we will make use of that mechanism.”
Wright said the government would respect the ultimate judgment of the supreme court when it hears the article 50 case next month.
“That is what the rule of law requires: that however big the case may be, the rule of law matters more.”
Wright’s comment came as the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, said he was planning to lead a 100,000-strong march to the supreme court on the day it hears the Brexit appeal.
The most senior human rights official in , Nils Muižnieks, added his voice on Monday to calls for the government to deliver a “stronger message” in defence of the high court judges.
Muižnieks, who is the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, which oversees the European court of human rights, expressed his concern about the “political and media reaction” to last Thursday’s judgment.
“These were blatant attacks on the independence of the judiciary designed to stir up popular hatred, not just against the so-called ‘enemies of the people’ but also those who brought the claim to the courts,” he said.
“The spike in hate crimes immediately after the UK’s referendum on EU membership and the climate of hostility to non-nationals can be linked to the hate speech targeting migrants in some parts of the UK press and by certain leading politicians long before and in the run-up to the referendum. Words matter as they are often the first step towards actual violence.
“This is why political leaders have a duty to stand up to those sectors of the media that are stirring up hatred. A stronger message is now needed from the UK government which clearly condemns the personal attacks on the judges and the targeting of those individuals who brought the challenge to the courts.”
Pressure on the justice secretary, Liz Truss, to condemn the media’s coverage continues despite her belatedly issuing a statement on Saturday reasserting the importance of the courts.
Truss said: “The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality. In relation to the case heard in the high court, the government has made it clear it will appeal to the supreme court. Legal process must be followed.”
The chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said she was disappointed that Truss, who is both justice secretary and lord chancellor, had not gone further in condemning the attacks.
The Bar Council also passed a resolution regretting the “serious and unjustified attacks on the judiciary arising out of the article 50 litigation” and calling on Truss, who is responsible for defending the independence of the judiciary, to speak out.
The Law Society president, Robert Bourns, said on Monday: “Attacks on the judges simply because they were doing their jobs does our country no credit, and government ministers must be unequivocal in their support for the rule of law even if they disagree with the judgment.
“It is part of the role of lawyers to defend unpopular causes and there has been an increasing narrative in recent months that seeks to conflate the jobs solicitors and barristers do with the causes they represent as part of our system of justice. The extension of this to disparaging and criticising judges is dangerous and damaging.”
Francis FitzGibbon QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “Neither the lord chancellor nor the prime minister have done what they ought to do, and unreservedly condemn both the calling of judges ‘enemies of the people’, the demands for their dismissal, and the making of their blameless personal lives into objects of reproach.
“Standing by and saying nothing may not be meant as such, but is likely to be seen as tacit approval for what has gone on, and encouragement for more of the same. In these disturbed times, dignified silence doesn’t work because there are too many people who will see it as a green light.”
Over the weekend, the health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who appeared on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, defended the right of newspapers to criticise the judges involved in the high court ruling.
“There are plenty of times when I haven’t liked the tone of the , there are plenty of times I don’t like the tone of the BBC but that is democracy,” he said. “I would defend to the hilt the right of newspapers within the law to write what they like and to criticise politicians.”
Dominic Raab, a former justice minister and prominent Brexit campaigner, told the Daily Telegraph: “This is a hugely contentious ruling bound to provoke criticism and debate. Our judges are robust, not some precious shrinking violets. Frankly, the Bar Council sound like they want to gag debate, which is hardly democratic. All sides need a greater sense of perspective.”
The Sunday Times claimed that four of the justices on the supreme court panel expected to hear the appeal “had links to the EU” – in some cases referring to their involvement with the European court of human rights, which is not part of the .
Conor Gearty, a professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics, retweeted pictures of the Daily Mail’s ‘enemies of the people’ front page and noted its similarities to a 1933 German newspaper that used the same phrase to refer to the need for judges to “get out of the way of the German people’s will”.
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