“It is a guerilla war by lawyers trying to preserve Human Rights”

At the recent coronation of King Charles III, some peaceful protesters in favour of scrapping the monarchy were arrested. “The idea that in modern Britain you can be arrested for a placard that says ‘not my king’ seems to be a bit disgraceful, really”, says Raj Chada, Criminal defence lawyer at Hodge Jones & Allen. His firm defends some of the protesters who have been arrested. Chada thinks the action by the Metropolitan Police was completely out of proportion. But not quite unexpected. A week before the coronation, the Tory government introduced a new Public Order Bill, which gives the police much more power in dealing with protests. “We see now, that there is a real danger that it is used indiscriminately, and so it undermines the fundamental right of free speech”, explains Chada. For him this fits into a wider political trend of attacks on Human Rights.

Raj Chada explains the background in an interview with Stefan Howald.

Since last year, the recently sacked Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab was working on a new Bill of Rights Bill to restrict the reach of the Human Rights Act. What is your take on this?

Dominic Raab was universally regarded as one of the worst Justice Secretary. He failed to engage with the professionals, he made the reduction of Human Rights one of his priorities, he pursued an agenda which was Trumpian in its nature and in regard of the rule of law.

Do you think his proposed Bill of Rights Bill will return in any form?

We just don’t know what will happen. Irrespective of your views on the issues, for me it doesn’t make much sense to restrict the, UK Human Rights Act if you are still part of the European Convention on Human Rights. The rights are still there for British citizens, even under the revised Act, and you can ultimately still go to Strassbourg. It just makes it more time-consuming and expensive to jettison these rights. So it just doesn’t make much sense.

Some right-wing Tories make occasionally some noises, that the UK should leave the European Council and ditch the ECHR. Do you think this is a real danger?

Things are moving so quickly, you just don’t know. Two or three years ago I would have said no, because that would be an astonishing thing, as only Kosovo – not yet officially recognised as an independent state – and Russia, which has been expelled, are not part of the European Council. But equally two or three years before Brexit I wouldn’t have thought that we would leave the EU.

There is a particular strand in the Tory party that is obsessed with Europe and with the Convention on Human Rights. They are saying and doing things which were unheard of even under Thatcher. Their rhetoric on refugees crossing the Channel in small boats is racist, their vilification of lawyers who help defend human rights has been dangerous, so it really feels like an obsession.

Would it affect your daily work or is it just dangerous rhetoric?

It would affect greatly my work. I do a lot of work for protesters and we use the Convention articles 10 and 11, which guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association respectively. We went to the Supreme Court two years ago, in relation to a case concerning the interaction between the criminal justice system and Human Rights.

The case was concerning a protest against an arms fair. It started in a Magistrates’ court, a low court, and protesters were charged with minor public order offensives, namely obstruction of the highways. Which is a non-imprisonable offence, you only get fined for it. These four individuals locked on to each other in front of the arms fair, preventing lorries getting in. And they were acquitted at the Magistrates’ court. Because the magistrate said they were exercising their right to free speech, and so you have to balance their right against the inconvenience caused to other people. In a balancing exercise no right has automatic precedence over another. You do the balancing exercise the Convention on Human Rights says you must do. And the magistrate said, in these special circumstances, they weren’t there very long, it was a symbolic protest, so I am going to acquit them.

This gets reversed on appeal by a higher court, we appeal against it, it goes all the way to the Supreme court and the Supreme court says that is the right way to do it. A road is not automatically for pedestrians or for vehicles, it is a shared space. So this balancing exercise is very important and you can only convict somebody, if it is important to interfere with article 10 of the Convention. So this defence of proportionality which had never been stated so clearly before, rests on the Convention of Human Rights.

And that is the foundation for a lot of cases in the last few years. For instance when we defended some of the protesters who toppled the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, we ran the defence on article 10.

In many ways this judgement by the Supreme Court has been the trigger for the government to introduce legislation to reduce Human Rights. So in protest law it would have a massive effect if they would say you are not allowed to apply to the Convention.

At the moment, you have to argue in any separate case with the Human Rights Convention?

Yes. We say this judgement applies to any conviction arising out of that protest. That’s how we dealt with all cases, be it obstruction of the highways, be it criminal damage as in the Colston-case, be it not obeying a police officer who gives orders during a protest. We said it has to be duly compliant with the Convention, it has to be a test of proportionality and what happened is, the senior judiciary did not like that. Despite the landmark judgement by the Supreme court, the Court of Appeal – which is much more conservative in its outlook – have restricted it, they’ve gone back and said it only applies in certain circumstances, and so there is a battle in the legal world at the minute, between those that challenge particular decisions of the establishment, if we call it that for a moment, be it the police or whoever and the establishment itself, be it the judiciary, police or state or government. And that battle is taking place in criminal law, in migration, in judicial reviews, looking at government decisions.

Where is this obsession against the Convention coming from?

It is a separate issue but it is linked with Brexit, and coming from a very anti-EU strand within the party. But it is bizarre, because the European Convention was instigated by Winston Churchill and formulated by British lawyers. There is a fundamental anger against it which is based on ignorance about the difference to EU law and about its history. And then there is a more specific dislike of being challenged, because it interferes with what the governing classes are allowed to do, it restrains, and they don’t like that. So the other recurring thing of this government, well of successive Conservative governments, is we don’t want to be challenged, we want to do what we want to do: restrict judicial reviews, restrict parliamentary challenges, and overall the executive should have more power. Philosophically, the executive saying we should not be challenged and lawyers saying we do want to challenge this.

So how will you go from here?

I think the only solution is democratic politics. The leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer is by background, ironically, a human rights lawyer. The difficulty is that Labour are too timid in their defence, and if this position remains that Labour will echo what the Tories are saying, then the future of democratic politics is quite bleak. On the other hand it is a guerilla war by lawyers quite simply to try to neuter the effect of this agenda as much as possible. That is, in my view, what we have been engaged in during the last two years since we had that landmark judgement, and since then the government has been trying to restrict it. And some judges to claw it back and us trying to maintain the position of the Convention.

Your firm does quite a lot of work in protest law and you are one of the senior lawyers in this area. How does the company finance this?

With compensation via legal aid by the state. It is not easy to run the business, but we do what we can. From 1997 till 2022 the compensation for writs, preparations for defences, were frozen. The pay has stagnated, i.e. has become, in real terms, less, and the working patterns are quite challenging. So lots of criminal lawyers have left, I can’t get enough people who do trials. This is true for the whole system, lawyers, barristers. We are coming to a tipping point.

But then again the whole public sector is in crisis. In the UK at the moment, nothing seems to work. It really is this bad. The NHS is in crisis, the schools are in crisis, the legal sector is in crisis. I’ve never known a period – maybe just after 1992 – when things were this bad. But you cannot have ten, twelve years of austerity, and on top of that Covid and think everything is going to be okay. Maybe Covid was the tipping point. People thought during the lock-down, hang on how shall we cope.

The difference to 1992 is that there was a genuine mood then that things had gone too far, so we have to pull it back, we have to have working public services. I don’t feel that today as a general mood. I feel just a sense of nothing works, but we can’t do anything about it. I can’t see a distinctive politics which tries to solve it. Labour aren’t providing that alternative narrative, that even Blair put up, with all his faults.

From the outside, it looks to me that not even concerning the NHS there is a feeling it belongs to all and we can fix it.

Yes, the junior doctors are on strike, the nurses are on strike. It feels a lot more dissociated, you can’t get a GP appointment, you just can’t, so local pharmacists are beginning to offer medical checks for a 100 pounds. That is dangerous. You can’t get an appointment, the service has disappeared. And lots of people feel disillusioned about it. The health system should work as a triage system, but when you don’t get an appointment with a GP, people go to A&E, which makes it worse. And you have got all the problems with social care, there is no joined-up thinking, a strategy to deal with the NHS in the 21st century.

And that is the difference to 1992 that there is no strategy, either from the politicians or the civil servants, that makes you feel comfortable.

And that is true for Labour as well, isn’t it? I haven’t seen anything reassuring or innovative from them.

I think Labour is paranoid about losing again at the national election, schizophrenic about its approach. There is also a difficulty how to deal with the Corbyn legacy and the Blair legacy and how you fashion something new. So Labour has lost a sense for what this party stands for.

Keir Starmer purged the party hierarchy of all former supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, it was brutal. Very brutal. The Corbinistas have been sidelined, but the new leadership hasn’t really found a new way to motivate. To let us feel that Labour represents an exciting new system. And the risk is that it will be a continuity of Rishi Sunak.

I can’t remember Starmer saying anything else other than the Tories are failing, have run out of steam and have ruined the country. But there seems to be no positive idea.

In 1997 when you were campaigning as an activist for the Labour party, you could talk about devolution, minimum wage, the massive spending boost for the NHS to bring it up to European standards. I am not sure what activists can offer anybody at the doorsteps this time.

It’s not specifically about going back to the idea of re-nationalisation, for instance the gas companies, but how do we get back from austerity from which the country still hasn’t recovered. The living standard – for the first time ever since the war, possibly – the living standard of our children will be less than ours. And that is a problem that mainstream politics have not been able to work out.

Do you see any political movement beyond Labour?

Well, I think things are going in circles, there inevitably will be a new generation with left-wing politics, hopefully within the Labour party, if not outside Labour. I think this will centre around left-green politics. The younger generation, as all the protests show, are much more articulate in their approach to green politics. I think the future lies in a sort of red-green alliance.

Why is the Green Party not more prominent in national politics? Is it just the election system of first past the post?

Yes, first past the post is the main reason. And the Green Party here has never been seen as a hugely credible alternative. So you might have to reform Labour from within which would be the preference, a young politician with a green-left agenda, but I can’t think of any Labour Member of Parliament, in the current situation. Or the Green Party has to find a way to become more credible because it is not seen as credible.

Why is that so? In most other European countries they Greens have entered the main stream.

They just haven’t managed to do that. I mean Caroline Lucas, the only green MP, is absolutely fantastic. She is one of the best. In my work I have quite a lot of contact with MPs about a case or a law, but she is the best. She is eloquent, she has persuasion, but apart from her I can’t think of any in the green party with which it feels it will be different with them. It still feels, I don’t know why, they’re outsiders trying to get in. They haven’t broken through.

I understand the difficulties on a national level, but what on a local level?

They are strong in Brighton and Hove, they may break through in Bristol and some other areas. Bristol might return a green MP in 2024. But I think they need better people. For a political revolution you need leaders who can do that. I don’t see that the Green Party has one, or, indeed, the Labour Party, at the moment. We need some characters who are willing to stand above the fray, who are credible and inspiring.

The Lib Dems killed themselves by going into coalition with the Tories, they will never be forgiven. Actually it is that generation that feels betrayed, by the Lib Dems and by Labour. Labour let them down with Iraq, the Lib Dems let them down about tuition fees. That generation when they entered the mid-twenties, became active in the Labour Party and moved the Labour Party to the left. I would say they are still around and they haven’t a voice at the moment, but what you also have you got the young professionals and the young doctors on strike – that is a revolution that you got doctors on strike.

And the nurses, for the first time ever.

And the nurses, but the doctors are all rich, okay, not all and not very rich, but some of them come from wealthy backgrounds. So the Daily Mail has done hit jobs on some of them.

But the reason they’re on strike, they think I have been told a lie. I did all the stuff my parents and my teachers told me to do and yet life is not how you said it would be. The society is not what you said it would be. Frank Dobson, former MP for Camden, told a story, when he first came to London, it was quite difficult but a nurse could just live in Hertfordshire and work in London. And now not even a consultant can afford that. So the promise of not only a better life in society but that your life gets better on a green-left agenda has been broken. And that’s to do with housing costs, with tuition fees, all the stuff that happened in the last 30 years and nobody has addressed. So there is a gap in the political market, definitively, the 30 to 40 year old, and then, even younger than that, with the green agenda. But I just don’t know who will go to exploit it.

Raj Chada was born in 1973 with an Indian background. He is a Criminal defence lawyer at Hodge Jones & Allen, where he acts as Head of the Criminal Defence, Financial Crime and Regulatory Department, specialising in cases of Common Law and Human Rights abuses against protesters. He was involved in defending 300 Extinction Rebellion activists, the Stansted Fifteen, nine Black Lives Matter protesters at Heathrow, activists at UK Uncut’s sit-in in Fortnum and Masons, and protesters who toppled the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

As a Labour politician, he was elected to Camden Council in 2002, quickly joining the local Cabinet with responsibility for Housing, before becoming the Leader of the council in 2005. In 2006 he lost his seat against the Conservatives. Attempting in 2015 to get elected as Labour Candidate for the Parliamentary seat in Camden, he lost out to Keir Starmer, the present leader of the Labour Party.

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