Amnesty International and Belfast law firm condemn attacks on immigration lawyers

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By Brian Pelan

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director and a Belfast solicitor have both hit out at recent attacks on immigration lawyers by the Conservative Party and sections of the media.

The Law Society and Bar Council in Britain have also criticised the Conservatives’ treatment of an immigration lawyer after she was the subject of a dossier sent to the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express.

Jacqueline McKenzie, head of immigration and asylum law at Leigh Day, said Conservative Party HQ’s dossier was “inaccurate and intended to whip up ill-feeling towards her”.

Ms McKenzie said: “The hit job on me was vile and self-serving, and put me and those close to me at considerable risk of physical harm. I’m having to take security advice and precautions, such is the seriousness I place on ominous emails I have received.”

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland programme director for Amnesty International, said: “Around the world, Amnesty has documented how lawyers are attacked to restrict access to justice and silence those who seek to uphold the rule of law.

“It is deeply depressing to see this become a feature of political and media discourse in the UK. It is a transparent ploy to divert attention from the real issues – whether that be the government’s dismal asylum policy or its Bill to block Troubles victims from getting justice.

“Tragically, in Northern Ireland, we have seen where such dangerous talk can lead. Reckless rhetoric from government ministers can end up putting a target on the backs of lawyers.

“The legal profession plays a crucial role in upholding the rule of law and defending human rights for everyone in this country. Lawyers and judges should be defended, not attacked.”

Solicitor Sinead Marmion, Head of Immigration/Family & Children’s Rights at Phoenix Law in Belfast, said: “Criticism of lawyers seeks to ultimately undermine the rule of law. Attacks on lawyers is an indictment of a troubled government. Ms McKenzie has been acting for her clients in the way that any solicitor would; on behalf of their client, seeking to get the best results for them, and is regulated to do so.

“As an immigration lawyer, who has clients who face the worst human rights breaches in society, it is so important that we have well-skilled lawyers able to represent them, who are able to do their job without being attacked. Attacking lawyers has only one purpose; to deter lawyers from representing these vulnerable clients, who are subject to cruel and unlawful decisions from the government. We will always be here to assist clients who are facing these decisions. It is a fact of life.”

Nick Vineall. Chair of the Bar Council, and Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society, said in a statement: “The legal community is gravely concerned by the experience of immigration solicitor Jacqueline McKenzie.

“No lawyer should be criticised, or made the subject of a targeted campaign, for doing their job. Everyone is entitled to legal representation, and it is a United Nations basic principle that lawyers should not be identified with the causes of their clients as a result of representing them.

“That is why – as we have said repeatedly – it is wrong to describe lawyers as ‘lefty’ or ‘activist’ simply on the basis of the causes they advocate on behalf of their clients.”

Leigh Day, the law firm where Ms McKenzie works, said in a statement: “We want to publicly state our complete support and admiration for the work that Jacqueline, her team, and many other lawyers around the country do to ensure that the law is applied accurately to their clients’ cases.

“We understand that a briefing criticising Jacqueline was sent from Conservative Campaign Headquarters (formerly known as Conservative Central Office). This four-page briefing had many inaccuracies and was plainly sent with an agenda for Jacqueline to be singled out and targeted by the press.

“It is shocking and shameful that in a democratic society such a document could be sent from any political party, not least the party in government. It is both irresponsible and extremely dangerous for anyone to be targeted this way, as we sadly saw in September 2020 when an immigration lawyer was attacked at his office by a man brandishing a knife, which reportedly followed comments by the then Home Secretary Priti Patel.”

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