The Memo: Asylum seekers and the lawyers who defend them

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Asylum seekers and the lawyers who defend them

Sose Ebodaghe – 16 October 2023

You might have heard the term ‘lefty lawyer’ being thrown around in recent weeks. If not, don’t worry. As endearing as the name might sound, the meaning isn’t nearly as pleasant. Most recently, the term has been directed at immigration lawyers who represent asylum seekers by the former home secretary. The aforementioned ‘lefty lawyers’ are generally taken to be those with a more liberal ideology who find themselves representing clients occupying areas of political difference (such as asylum seekers). Yet perhaps unusual, the political rhetoric directed against these lawyers has prompted prominent figures in the legal community (and across the political spectrum) to jump to their defence.

So, where did it all begin? Wind the clock back to the Autumn of 2020. Former prime minister, Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, strongly condemned human rights lawyers and other ‘do-gooders’ for their opposition to (and alleged attempts to obstruct) the government’s bids to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel. This came against the backdrop of a more general cultural disagreement over how immigration should look post-Brexit, and among some groups, opposition to the government’s plans were seen as part of a broader leftist agenda in the legal sphere.

The latest in the line of fire was immigration lawyer and partner at Leigh Day, Jacqueline McKenzie. The government published an entire dossier explicitly criticising her work helping asylum seekers, specifically in her challenge to the government’s proposed Rwanda plan, pointing to her affiliations with the Labour party. Of course, critics of the government’s language have pointed to the fact that the terminology is highly inappropriate for lawyers hired to represent their clients. McKenzie has highlighted a number of instances of threats and abuse that have followed, with the government quick to respond that lawyers should not be ‘exempt from criticism’.

Lawyers of Labour and Conservative leanings alike have condemned the ‘lefty lawyers’ moniker. Of course, the general consensus remains that lawyers should be free to represent their clients and raise legitimate legal concerns without political criticism. While genuine issues were raised in the dossier about some asylum seekers being encouraged to fictionalise back stories to gain asylum, any blanket statements will serve only to distract from very genuine concerns about the viability of the government’s Rwanda plan, among others.