WITH legal aid funding being cut and the Government seemingly willing to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), law looks under attack. But, Baroness Helena Kennedy tells Mark Tallentire: law matters.
“LAWYERS often get a bad rap,” Baroness Kennedy, the leading barrister and human rights lawyer declares, as her opening line.
I’m slightly thankful she didn’t say a “bad press”.
“But civilised societies are based on law. Law and democracy are the twin pillars of creating a civilised societies.
“So we need a new generation of really good lawyers to help make our societies function well.”
The Labour peer is on a train heading north to open Durham University’s new £7m Law School.
Her links with Durham go back decades.
She has been a regular visitor to give lectures and talks; her daughter was a Durham student, gaining undergraduate and master’s degrees in anthropology; and she chaired the Human Genetics Commission, which also featured the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Chris Higgins.
But her visit was about more than unveiling a plaque, though she did do that.
She also delivered a lecture titled: Why Law Matters.
“Our new world provides us with lots of challenges and law is part of trying to address those challenges.
“Whether it’s globalisation, terrorism and global warming, there’s a role for law in dealing with it,” she says.
She admits it would be “tough” for young lawyers to follow in her footsteps – practising criminal law and working for human rights.
Much easier, she says – and, potentially, lucrative – to go into commerce, corporate or business law.
Legal aid is being “cut to the bone”, she fumes.
Even this week, the Government has announced it wants to slash the £52m annual legal aid bill for expert witnesses in the family courts.
“It’s not good sense to cut so far and so hard that you end up taking justice away from the less well off in society,” the Baroness retorts.
“There are real challenges in what the Government is seeking to do in the years ahead. People like myself have to make sure that in future law is prevailing because if you don’t have good law, society pays the cost across the board.”
And so we turn to Abu Qatada. The radical Muslim cleric has been a thorn in the side of successive Home Secretaries for nearly a decade, as attempt after attempt to deport the preacher to his native Jordan got mired in lengthy legal argument.
Earlier this month, Qatada’s lawyers unexpectedly announced he would leave Britain voluntarily if a new Jordanian law banning the use in court of evidence obtained by torture is passed by the country’s parliament.
Perhaps, just perhaps, that will be the end of it.
But, in advance of the shock announcement of Edward Fitzgerald QC in front of Qatada’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearing, the Government, or senior Conservative ministers within it at least, seemed quite relaxed about Britain temporarily withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if it would aid his exit.
Unsurprisingly, Baroness Kennedy is firmly against such a move.
“Withdrawal from the European court sends a wonderful message to places like Russia, Moldova and Turkey, where human rights are not well protected,” she says.
“We’re trying to raise standards across the world. It’s about trying to create law in a globalised world. There have to be balances and protections for human beings whichever society they’re in.
“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin would love to be able to resist the rulings of the European court and us withdrawing would send the message that we’re not serious about it.
“Because it’s got the word European attached to it people make the mistake of thinking it’s part of the European Union. It’s got nothing to do with it.
“People don’t seem to realise that British lawyers drafted the ECHR. It’s built on principles that are at the heart of our system – a fair trial, not using torture.
“It would be a great sadness for us to somehow separate ourselves from that.”
The new Durham Law School building is the culmination of a four-year, £50m development programme which also includes the university’s new Palatine Centre headquarters and an extension to the recently renamed Bill Bryson Library.
“Durham University has one of the leading law schools in the world and this new building will take it into a league of its own,” Baroness Kennedy says.
“I feel so honoured to be opening it – it really is state of the art, with facilities which are unmatched anywhere in the UK.
“Law plays a vital role in all our lives and the need for research and scholarship of the highest order.
“The education of new cohorts of brilliant lawyers is vital to our nation’s wellbeing. It’s an exciting day.”