Boris Johnson has been urged to apologise after suggesting lawyers were “abetting criminal gangs” putting asylum seekers on boats to the UK.
The prime minister reportedly made the remarks at this week’s meeting of cabinet during a discussion the government’s policy of deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda.
The first flight to the east African country had been due to take off on Tuesday night, but was grounded after lawyers acting on the immigrants’ behalf appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
Johnson said what the “criminal gangs are doing and what … those who effectively are abetting the work of the criminal gangs are doing, is undermining people’s confidence in the safe and legal system, undermining people’s general acceptance of immigration”.
But Mark Fenhalls, the chair of the Bar Council, accused the PM of “bullying” his members, who he said were only doing their jobs.
Speaking to Times Radio, he also revealed that some lawyers had received death threats in the wake of Johnson’s remarks.
He said: “I think it’s a bit galling when elected politicians make completely unwarranted and unfair attacks and seek to undermine the rule of law in the way that’s been done this week.”
The QC added: “His remarks to cabinet earlier this week were frankly, outrageous, it is appalling conduct to describe lawyers doing their jobs as abetting criminal gangs. And it’s an illustration perhaps, of why language matters.
“And we’re told that the attorney general has said that his remarks have been taken out of context. In that case, we’d welcome him explaining in what context it could possibly be justified to claim that lawyers are abetting criminal gangs. And if he’s made a mistake, then he should simply apologise or clarify his remarks.”
Fenhalls said there were “numbers of examples of people who received death threats after these kinds of comments”.
“What appears to be going on is a pattern of attacking lawyers who are maintaining arguments in relation to policy that the government doesn’t like, and it’s a form of bullying,” he said.
The PM’s spokesman said: “I think the prime minister is firmly of the view that all those in our legal profession, whether it’s lawyers, solicitors, barristers, judges play a vital role in our democracy, the sort of abuse or harassment is utterly unacceptable.
“People are able to bring these these challenges and I’m sure we will see those continue. The government equally is able to robustly defend its position in the courts.”