Commonwealth head warns of dangers of denying justice to all

Lady Scotland says lawyers from across the Commonwealth must unite to uphold rule of law

Denying access to justice risks creating fresh conflicts at a time when the international rule of law is under threat, the Commonwealth secretary general has warned ahead of a meeting of the organisation’s law enforcement officers.

In an interview with the Guardian, Patricia Scotland called for coordinated action on climate change, cybercrime and corruption by the Commonwealth’s 53 member states – and admitted it can be “very lonely” serving as attorney general.

This week, senior officials, attorney generals and ministers are gathering in Sri Lanka to discuss how to improve cooperation in an era when austerity has deprived many of access to justice and the rise of populist nationalism is undermining respect for international courts.

Before flying out at the weekend, Lady Scotland, who was attorney general for three years under the last Labour government, told the Guardian she believed that by sharing legal initiatives the Commonwealth could become a “beacon” for international collaboration.

“The rules-based system has never been more important, she said. “We’re living in a time where multilateralism is under huge pressure and nationalistic [sentiments] are on the rise, and therefore the Commonwealth is a beacon in terms of multilateral unity.

“Lawyers from across the Commonwealth understand that they have to stand together to uphold the rule of law,” she said. “No country is immune from attack … As they said in [Shakespeare’s] Henry VI, if you want anarchy to prevail you shoot all the lawyers first. If you become a lawyer, you have to have courage.

“We are determined to support the rules-based system. We cannot go back to a situation where the rule of law does not apply to all and we cannot have a situation [where] might is right … And that’s something we thought we would never have to fight for, but we are fighting for it now.”

Being an attorney general can be “quite a lonely position”, Scotland admitted, since it often falls to attorney generals and justice ministers to give their governments “the bad news”. She added: “It can be a very lonely role, a tough role. So for attorney generals and law ministers to come together [and share their experiences], that in itself is an opportunity to strengthen the rule of law.”

The UK’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox QC, is not travelling to Sri Lanka. In past years, the attorney general did normally attend. The permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Sir Richard Heaton, will be the UK’s most senior representative.

Scotland became Britain first black female QC in 1991
Scotland became Britain first black female QC in 1991. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

Although Scotland avoided making direct reference to recent deep cuts in the UK’s justice system, she issued a statement for the meeting declaring: “Even where equal and progressive laws exist, swingeing cuts to legal aid, or lack of legal aid altogether, can impair access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable.

“Lack of access to justice then leads to further injustice – with people denied their rights or a voice, unable to fight discrimination and prevented from holding public bodies to account … At worst, injustice can be the root of conflict and violence – even though people are generally not seeking revenge and retribution, but recompense and restoration.”

The Commonwealth law meeting coincides with what is known as Pro Bono Week in the UK, where lawyers highlight the amount of free work they do for those who cannot afford representation. The latest figures show that one in every four barristers practising in England and Wales undertook pro bono work in 2018.

Scotland, who is also chancellor of Greenwich University, has helped oversee what is becoming a common university model recruiting student lawyers to create a volunteer legal clinic to support local people who need representation.


Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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