Published On: 29th August 2023Categories: General

On 8 August 2023, the Home Office revealed plans for the ‘Professional Enablers Taskforce’ which intends to “clampdown on crooked lawyers who coach illegal migrants to lie”. Speaking about the task force, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “Crooked immigration lawyers must be rooted out and brought to justice”.

The task force – which was established a few months ago, but officially launched on 8 August – aims to bring regulatory bodies like the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) together with “law enforcement and government departments to increase enforcement action against lawyers who help migrants exploit the immigration system”. The Home Office also shared plans to expand the task force to other so-called “professional enablers” like doctors, accountants and employers who allegedly “use their expertise to facilitate illegal migration”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, David McNeill of The Law Society stated that the announcement of the task force “which they tout with such aggressive language has been in existence for months now so really, from our perspective, it just looks like a bit of lawyer-bashing as a distraction from really bad news for the Government on the number of asylum seekers now accommodated in hotels – 50,000.” 

On 9 August it was reported that forty-one migrants had died off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy – sadly just the latest group of people to die trying to reach safety. As of 2023, the number of people listed as ‘dead or missing’ who attempted to reach Europe currently stands at 2,387, according to the UN’s Internal Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix.

It is impossible to ignore the levels of racism and discrimination that refugees and asylum seekers are subject to, racism which is enabled by the media and perpetuated by the government. The introduction of measures like the Bibby Stockholm floating asylum barge and, despite widespread condemnation from refugee charities and the UN, the recent passing of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 – which effectively puts a ban on the right to claim asylum in the UK – symbolise the government’s disdain for refugees.

Housing traumatised and vulnerable people on the Bibby Stockholm – with its outbreak of potentially deadly legionella bacteria, risks of overcrowding, and concerns over fire safety and privacy – is a clear act of state cruelty. Although the government insist the barge is a cost effective way to house asylum seekers and refugees, a recent report by NGOs Reclaim the Seas and One Life to Live claims otherwise.

Despite government and media attempts at dehumanising refugees, for a fair judicial system, it is vital that everyone can access legal advice and representation. The overwhelming majority of lawyers who work in asylum law and public law undertake such work in the best interests of their clients, and act on instructions within the clear confines of the law.

After more than a decade of failed austerity, the government are now reduced to weaponising investigations against lawyers as a smokescreen for their disastrous social and economic policies. The SRA are being used, and allowing themselves to be used, to support the government’s ‘enablers task force’ investigations. Rather than continue to assess solicitors independently as a regulatory body, the SRA are now being drawn into politically-motivated investigations. As such, they are failing in their duties to act independently of government; independence which is essential in checking the power of the executive and upholding the rule of law.

Solicitors are already strictly regulated by the SRA, who impose numerous sanctions in cases where the Standards and Regulations have been breached. The means in which to strike off and investigate breaches of the SRA’s regulations are already in place. It is therefore troubling and perhaps confusing why the SRA would not point the Home Office towards these measures, instead they run the risk of further enabling the government to scrutinise and surveil lawyers as a whole.

The announcement of the ‘enablers task force’ is just one of many recent assaults on so-called ‘lefty lawyers’. Six months ago it was revealed that the Home Office had been ‘monitoring the activities […] of a small number of legal practitioners’. The Home Secretary’s recent announcement is consistent with a government that devalues the rule of law and the valuable work lawyers do to ensure access to justice for all. It is no surprise that the government seemingly seeks to drum up vitriol against ‘lefty lawyers’ at a time when they are pushing their anti-immigration policies more ferociously than ever.

On the weekend of 5 August, Conservative party HQ sent a dossier on lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie, head of immigration and asylum law at Leigh Day, to the right-wing press. The dossier linked anyone who challenged the government’s Rwanda plan to Keir Starmer and contained information about McKenzie’s cases and her trusteeship of Detention Action. McKenzie subsequently received an “ominous” email which left her reviewing security measures.

It is clear that government attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ increases the threat of danger towards those working in the sector. On 7 September 2020, just days after then-Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed ‘activist lawyers’ were frustrating the deportation of asylum seekers, a man entered a London branch of Duncan Lewis solicitors with a knife and threatened to kill an immigration law solicitor.

The ‘enablers task force’ is an insidious programme designed to invite scrutiny and public condemnation of professionals working in an already stretched and underfunded sector. The timing of Braverman’s announcement – the same week the first asylum seekers were taken aboard the Bibby Stockholm – is not coincidental. 

We stand by our colleagues working within the immigration and asylum sector, who undertake essential work in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Attacks on those working within the legal profession are unacceptable – as Braverman herself states, the ‘majority of lawyers act with integrity’. It is important to recognise the vital work that lawyers do in protecting individual rights and freedoms, and ensuring the rule of law is upheld.

Photography: David Woolfall/Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Writing Luisa Le Voguer Couyet