UK Lawyers Sign 'Declaration of Conscience' Not to Prosecute Peaceful Climate Protesters
"It's the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty."
More than 120 mostly English lawyers on Friday published a "declaration of conscience" pledging to withhold their services from "supporting new fossil fuel projects" and "action against climate protesters exercising their democratic right of peaceful protest."
The United Kingdom has in recent years faced protests from numerous climate groups, including those with more pronounced direct actions like Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, and Extinction Rebellion. As part of those protests, participants have filled the streets, blocked fossil fuel facilities, glued scientific papers and themselves to a government building, called out major law firms for "defending climate criminals," and even, controversially, tossed tomato soup on one of Vincent van Gogh's glass-protected paintings.
Released on the heels of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the lawyers' statement notes the U.K. Parliament's 2019 climate emergency declaration, the International Energy Agency's warning against future oil and gas development, and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres' proclamation that "investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness."
The attorneys' declaration also recognizes that the world is on track to breach the 2015 Paris climate agreement's 1.5°C goal and the "dire consequences" of doing so, pointing out that "in the U.K. alone, we are already seeing unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, flooding, and coastal erosion. In other parts of the globe the effects are already far worse."
Along with vowing to restrict their services, the lawyers:
- Called upon the U.K. government and other attorneys to take action;
- Advocated for law and litigation reform related to mitigating and adapting to global warming;
- Expressed support for the democratic right to peaceful protest, which is under attack in the United Kingdom; and
- Committed to donating their time and money to climate causes.
The attorneys, collectively calling themselves Lawyers Are Responsible, are supported by the groups Good Law Project and Plan B.Earth—whose director, Tim Crosland, highlighted that "the U.N. has said we're on a 'highway to climate hell' and that to get off it, we need to stop new fossil fuel developments now. But behind every new oil and gas deal sits a lawyer getting rich."
"Meanwhile, it's the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty," Crosland said. "The rule of law has been turned on its head. Lawyers are responsible. It's time to take a stand."
Taking a stand is not without risk. In the United Kingdom, generally, solicitors advise clients on specific issues and barristers argue in court—and the former are able to choose their cases and clients while the latter are subject to the "cab rank rule," obligating them to provide services as long as they are qualified, even if the case or client is objectionable.
As Lawyers Are Responsible's website details in response to some right-wing outrage over the declaration:
The classic example of the cab rank rule in action is of a criminal barrister who accepts a brief to represent a person accused of murder, against whom there is strong evidence of guilt. In that situation, there is no conflict between the cab rank rule and the interests of justice. The barrister is agreeing to perform his or her role within a system of justice that produces, on the whole, just outcomes. By representing the accused, the barrister is merely helping to ensure that there is a fair trial and is serving the greater good.
The signatories to the declaration are convinced that at the present time offering their services in support of new fossil fuel projects or action against peaceful climate protesters would not serve the greater good.
Good Law Project director and declaration signatory Jolyon Maugham wrote in a Friday opinion piece for The Guardian that "like Big Tobacco, the fossil fuel industry has known for decades what its activities mean. They mean the loss of human life and property, which the civil law should prevent but does not."
"The scientific evidence is that global heating, the natural and inevitable consequence of its actions, will cause the deaths of huge numbers of people. The criminal law should punish this but it does not," Maugham continued. "Nor does the law recognize a crime of ecocide to deter the destruction of the planet. The law works for the fossil fuel industry—but it does not work for us."
"Today's history books speak with horror about what the law of yesterday did, of how it permitted racism, rape, and murder," he added. "And tomorrow's history books will say the same about the law as it stands today, of how it enabled the destruction of our planet and the displacement of billions of people."
The Guardianreported that "18 barristers, including six king's counsel, have signed the declaration" and "will now self-refer to the Bar Standards Board." The newspaper noted that while barristers can face fines for rule-breaking, "the consequences can be more far-reaching for junior members of the profession, who can find themselves blocked from receiving the 'silk' awarded to king's counsel, or from promotion to the judiciary."
In a statement from Plan B, one junior lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said that "young lawyers are being placed in an impossible position. We're being told by our firms and regulators it's a professional obligation to act for fossil fuel projects, knowing that doing so will poison our own future and all of life on Earth."
"That's wrong on every level. It's indefensible," the lawyer added. "If the profession doesn't look out for my generation, how does it expect to survive?"