Leading barristers have defied bar rules by signing a declaration saying they will not prosecute peaceful climate protesters or act for companies pursuing fossil fuel projects.
They are among more than 120 mostly English lawyers who have signed a declaration vowing to “withhold [their] services in respect of supporting new fossil fuel projects and action against climate protesters exercising their right of peaceful protest”.
Noting that climate breakdown represents “a serious risk to the rule of law”, the so-called “declaration of conscience” calls on legal professionals “to act urgently to do whatever they can to address the causes and consequences of the climate and ecological crises and to advance a just transition”.
Writing in the Guardian, Jolyon Maugham KC, the head of the Good Law Project and a key signatory of the declaration, says: “Like big tobacco, the fossil fuel industry has known for decades what its activities mean. They mean the loss of human life and property – which the civil law should prevent but does not.
“The scientific evidence is that global heating, the natural and inevitable consequence of its actions, will cause the deaths of huge numbers of people. The criminal law should punish this but it does not. Nor does the law recognise a crime of ecocide to deter the destruction of the planet. The law works for the fossil fuel industry – but it does not work for us.”
Eighteen barristers, including six king’s counsel, have signed the declaration. They will now self-refer to the Bar Standards Board for breaking the profession’s “cab rank” rule, which specifies that a barrister must take a case they are qualified for, provided they are available to do so.
On Friday they were accused of undermining a key principle of the legal system: that everyone is entitled fair and impartial legal representation.
Nick Vineall KC, the chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, said: “The cab rank rule prevents discrimination and improves access to justice. It means that barristers sometimes have to represent people they disapprove of or disagree with. But the flip side is that clients can have the barrister they choose. It is for judges or juries to decide who is right and who is wrong, not barristers. Should a barrister be allowed to refuse to defend a climate change activist because they happen to disagree with that activist’s style of protest? I don’t think so.”
Earlier in the week, Vineall told a service in Temple church: “There are some barristers who believe that they should be permitted to decline instructions, for instance from corporate clients, because they disapprove of the client’s corporate policies or practices, for instance on climate change.
“I have no doubt that these views are genuinely held and derive from good intentions. But I firmly believe that the greater good is achieved by the well-established approach which we have long adopted as a profession.”
Barristers found to be in violation of the rules can receive fines. But the consequences can be more far-reaching for junior members of the profession, who can find themselves blocked from receiving the “silk” awarded to king’s counsel, or from promotion to the judiciary.
One junior lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Young lawyers are being placed in an impossible position. We’re being told by our firms and regulators it’s a professional obligation to act for fossil fuel projects, knowing that doing so will poison our own future and all of life on Earth. That’s wrong on every level. It’s indefensible. If the profession doesn’t look out for my generation, how does it expect to survive?”
Young lawyers are being placed in an impossible position. We’re being told by our firms and regulators it’s a professional obligation to act for fossil fuel projects, knowing that doing so will poison our own future and all of life on Earth. That’s wrong on every level. It’s indefensible.
Tim Crosland, the director of the environmental law pressure group Plan B, which together with Maugham’s Good Law Project coordinated the declaration, said “behind every new oil and gas deal sits a lawyer getting rich”.
“Meanwhile, it’s the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty. The rule of law has been turned on its head. Lawyers are responsible. It’s time to take a stand.”
The declaration would be proclaimed outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London, at 12.30pm next Wednesday, Plan B said.