In defence of flashmobs…
Jack of Kent has written a characteristically thoughtful blogpost about this week’s ‘flashmob’ protest outside Carter Ruck’s offices. Here is my response, which I’ve also posted as a comment on the article itself:
Thanks for this post, David. As one of those involved in this week’s Carter Ruck protest I’m happy to debate the wider questions that you rightly point out such tactics raise.
In my view, companies who abuse human rights and/or pose a threat to democracy need to be named and shamed. This would surely include an oil company whose negilence led to 18 deaths and 30,000 injuries, and who then fought tooth and nail to silence media coverage of the issue. But it would also, I believe, include a legal firm who sought to advance their client’s interests by exploiting a demonstrably unjust law in order to suppress the right to freedom of speech. Should such a firm then seek to do the same by using similarly unjust laws to attack the fundamental underpinnings of the liberal democracy in which they exist, it is then time, in my view, for ordinary people to get on the streets and challenge them directly.
Carter Ruck this week sought, on behalf of their client, to use the law to prevent media coverage of Parliamentary proceedings. They then wrote to both the Speaker of the House of Commons, and every MP, in an apparent attempt to stop next week’s debate on freedom of speech. This was not the normal behaviour of a law firm in a healthy liberal democracy. In my view, these were political actions, and they were political actions characteristic of a dictatorial regime, not a free and open society. If a law firm starts playing politics (whether or not they do so on the instructions of a client), I believe that they then become a legitimate target for peaceful political protest.
Many people were killed, tortured or imprisoned to win and defend the democratic rights that we still largely enjoy in this country. These freedoms are now in danger, and our democracy has already been outrageously degraded by the attacks we’ve seen on civil and political rights over the last decade. If we want to remain a largely liberal and democratic society, rather than sliding slowly towards some form of corrupt pseudo-democracy, I believe that we will need to start mobilising political action now against all those now chipping away at our democratic traditions – including, where necessary, law firms.
I don’t believe there is an absolute dividing line between liberal democratic societies and tyrannical ones. A largely liberal democracy may have unjust laws on its statute books, such as the law which led to the prosecution for homosexuality of one of our national heroes, Alan Turing, within living memory of our grandparents’ generation. More recently, it was still possible to be prosecuted in this country for “blasphemy”. Today, someone who writes an entirely truthful article about another living person can be spuriously prosecuted under a libel law which, due to the financial cost of obtaining adequate legal representation, effectively denies many defendants their right to a fair trial.
Where a lawyer chooses to collaborate with the enforcement of an unjust, undemocratic law, they cannot, in my view, insulate themselves from the moral consequences of that choice, even if they are working within a still-largely-democratic society, even if they are acting on the instructions of a client.
I fully agree that cheap shots at the entire legal profession are lazy and unhelpful, but in a way that’s exactly my point. Lawyers are (notwithstanding those cheap shots) human beings. Human beings are moral agents. Moral agents make choices for which they are morally responsible, including choices within their professional lives. Perhaps it’s true that some other lawyers would have done exactly the same as Carter Ruck did this week, but I know that there are many others who would have refused, and would have done so not on legal grounds but on moral ones. In a situation where, as we are now seeing, what is legally acceptable begins to drift away from what is morally right, the role of individual conscience becomes crucially important.