The outgoing head of the Bar Council has labelled Dominic Raab “thin-skinned” for failing to meet him, claiming he was snubbed by the justice secretary for defending lawyers.
Derek Sweeting QC, whose tenure as chair of the professional body representing more than 16,000 barristers in England and Wales concludes at the end of the year, said he has not had a face-to-face meeting with Raab since the latter was appointed lord chancellor in mid-September.
In an interview with the Guardian, Sweeting said: “I still haven’t met him and don’t expect to. I understand he took exception to something which I had said and I have a good idea what it was.
“All I would say is that if ministers are going to make attacks on lawyers – unfairly, in my view, and the view of many others – then they should expect a robust response. We shouldn’t then end up in a position where we are denied meetings as a result of being critical. It does seem counterproductive and perhaps a bit of a thin-skinned approach.”
Raab is understood to have taken exception to comments Sweeting made expressing concern about the lord chancellor’s remarks in parliament when he said there was a “widespread practice” among defence lawyers “of encouraging the accused to wait until the moment in court before they take the decision on whether to plead guilty”.
Many criminal lawyers took umbrage at Raab’s words, suggesting they were misleading and added to the government’s anti-lawyer rhetoric.
Raab also attracted the ire of many barristers for not attending the Bar Council’s first physical conference in two years at the beginning of the month and sending a recorded message instead. To add insult to injury, on the day of the conference, he posted a picture on Twitter of himself with two people on roller skates dressed as Christmas puddings at a festival in his constituency.
“It got a pretty poor reception,” said Sweeting. “I do understand that an MP with a marginal seat would want to be in his constituency on a Saturday, and it wouldn’t have been a problem if he had responded to requests for a meeting in the months since he became lord chancellor.”
Raab’s failure to meet Sweeting comes at a time when the backlog in the crown courts, which try the most serious offences, stands at approximately 60,000 cases, with some trials pushed back until 2023. There have also been major bills published on judicial review and crime and sentencing.
The Guardian understands that the justice secretary has met Stephanie Boyce, the president of the Law Society, which is the equivalent professional body for solicitors.
Sweeting said: “It is important to talk to politicians face to face, not all the time, because they have lots of other priorities, but it’s really interesting what comes out of those sorts of discussions, not just on my part, but on the part of politicians who often say, ‘Oh, I actually would like to talk about this more than that.’ You often find the next conversation is the one in which you really get down to business and talk about the things that you’ve identified as mutual areas of interest, which is why I think it’s disappointing I haven’t had a face-to-face meeting.”
Discussing an eventful year as chair, Sweeting also pointedly contrasted his personal response to the crisis in Afghanistan with that of Raab, who was criticised for remaining on a family holiday in Crete while the Afghan government collapsed.
“We [the Bar Council] did a lot of work on Afghanistan during the summer,” said Sweeting. “I interrupted my holidays to do some work on it as well because it was urgent.”
Sweeting, who will take up an appointment as a high court judge on 11 January, urged Raab to reconsider.
“I hope that there’ll be a rethink and engagement as soon as possible with my successor,” he said. “I and the Bar Council have had very constructive relationships this year with officials at the MoJ [Ministry of Justice], as well as politicians – this is something of an exception to my experience of the year.”
A MoJ spokesperson said: “The justice secretary has engaged regularly with the legal sector and will continue to do so.”