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Home Office ditches controversial video claiming ‘activist lawyers’ are protecting asylum seekers after backlash

Home Office ditches controversial video claiming ‘activist lawyers’ are protecting asylum seekers after backlash

The Home Office’s top civil servant has ordered the removal of a controversial video dismissing people providing legal representation for asylum seekers as “activist lawyers”.

Permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft said the phrase — which appeared in a clip on the Home Office Twitter account — “should not have been used on an official government channel”.

Legal experts including the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland had condemned the department over the social media post, which hit out at EU rules and claimed they were being exploited by lawyers representing migrants.

The 21-second video posted on Wednesday night shows the Home Office’s work to remove migrants with no right to return in the UK.

It said current return regulations — presently set at an EU level — are “rigid and open to abuse allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns”.

Amanda Millar, the president of the Law Society of Scotland joined in the UK-wide condemnation of the video, saying on Thursday night that it was "wholly misleading" and should be withdrawn. 

Millar said: "Like our colleagues in England and Wales, we condemn the description of lawyers who are acting to uphold the law as ‘activist lawyers’. The video is wholly misleading and misrepresents the role of solicitors who work on behalf of their clients. It should be withdrawn.

"Such an attack on the integrity of the legal profession is utterly unwarranted. In a democratic society it is vital that we have an independent legal profession who are able to advise their clients on how they can uphold their rights within the law.  

"Solicitors must be able to work without fear or favour on behalf of their clients, just as the judiciary must be able to make impartial decisions in accordance with the law set down by parliament.

"We should be proud that we live in a society where anyone, regardless of their status, can seek to uphold their legal rights. Undermining the integrity and legitimate independence of the legal profession by a government department is a dangerous step and attacks the rule of law which serves us all as citizens."

Roddy Dunlop, QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "The Faculty shares the condemnation of attacks on lawyers as 'activists' in the Home Office video."

SNP Shadow Justice Secretary at Westminster, Joanna Cherry QC called the video a "disgraceful" piece of "propaganda" against lawyers. 

In a reply to King’s College economics professor Jonathan Portes, who had contact the department to complain about the post, Mr Rycroft said: "I agree the phrase you quote should not have been used on an official government channel.”

And the Home Office’s permanent secretary added: "I have made clear to the team this post should not be used again from Home Office accounts or anywhere else by civil servants."

Professor Portes had argued that the video was inconsistent with the Government Communication Service’s own guidelines stating that official messages should “be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical”.

They should also be “sensitive to tone and guard against perceived attacks on particular interests, organisations or individuals”.

Seprately, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined calls this week for the UK asylum system to be subject to "wholesale reform" after the death of asylum seeker Mercy Baguma in Glasgow. 

The argument about “activist lawyers” echoes that used by Number 10 in recent weeks.

Boris Johnson has argued that the European Union's Dublin regulations — which are designed to identify which member states are responsible for considering a person's request for asylum — make it “very difficult” to failed asylum seekers once they arrive on British shores.

He has vowed to draw up a new system once the UK leaves the European Union, although no details have so far been published.

A Number 10 spokesperson said at the time: “It’s something which can be abused by those migrants and their lawyers to frustrate the returns of those who have no right to be here.”

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