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Grace Njeri

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The leading UK lawyers who are refusing to work for fossil-fuel clients
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- Last month two UK activists, Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, were jailed for climbing the Queen Elizabeth II bridge over the River Thames and causing huge traffic disruption as part of a Just Stop Oil protest last year.
The pair were jailed for three years and two years seven months, respectively, with Judge Collery KC making it clear that the tough sentences were designed to deter copycat protests. Just Stop Oil described the punishment as draconian.
The decision came a month after one of the rocks on which the British legal system rests, the cab rank rule, was called into question by a group called Lawyers Are Responsible.
Although barristers – with one or two exceptions – are duty-bound to take the next brief they are offered, 120 leading lawyers (the figure has since risen to 160) launched a “declaration of conscience”, saying they would refuse to act for new fossil fuel projects or prosecute anti-fossil fuel campaigners.
It was poignant that the next day the UK government unveiled Powering Up Britain, its blueprint for the future of energy, and energy security, in the UK. In the autumn it had announced plans to award 130 new licenses for North Sea oil and gas exploration, and although these weren’t explicitly referred to in the report, it did state that: “We remain absolutely committed to maximising the vital production of UK oil and gas as the North Sea basin declines.”
“None of these fossil-fuel projects would come into being without lawyers to act as midwives,” says Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project and a signatory of the declaration.
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He wants his profession to face the same amount of scrutiny that banks receive when they work with fossil-fuel companies. “What we are trying to do is direct more scrutiny towards lawyers who choose to bring these infrastructure projects into existence,” he explains. “We want them to face public criticism for doing so. Lawyers understand causation, they will understand that the bringing of new fossil-fuel projects into the world is going to be profoundly destructive on an absolutely epic, existential scale.”
The crux of the argument is that, with the likes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issuing a “final warning” in its latest report, having previously stressed that no more fossil fuels should be taken from the ground, the legal profession should no longer be enabling these projects. And if that means turning a rule that says lawyers should act for everyone on its head, then so be it.
The Bar Council, however, argues that side-stepping the cab rank rule would involve barristers taking a moral, rather than a legal standpoint.
“When you unilaterally withdraw legal services you are … undermining one of the core ethical foundations that keeps justice systems moving, which is access to the courts and equality before the law,” says Michael Harwood, chair of the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee.
“They (barristers) shouldn’t be straying into the morality of what the particular client is doing … Once you get to the stage where the profession becomes self-selective … it becomes a slippery slope.”
This wouldn’t be the first time the profession has put ethics first in the UK, says Tim Crosland, director of the climate justice charity Plan B Earth. In the 1980s, Lawyers Against Apartheid was set up to support liberation struggles in South Africa and Namibia.
More recently, he says, the government has told the legal profession not to represent Russian oligarchs as part of sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. And in 2021, David Perry KC was dubbed a “mercenary” by the then Home Secretary, Dominic Raab, when he took up the brief to prosecute democracy protesters in Hong Kong. He eventually pulled out of the case.
“So, all those people who are now saying this is completely wrong to associate a lawyer with the cause were taking the completely opposite view two years ago,” says Crosland. “The profession is saying there are limits to this idea that a lawyer shouldn’t be associated with their client.”
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He sees the cab rank rule as little more than a fig leaf. “It allows people who are making lots of money from taking instructions from fossil-fuel companies like BP and Shell to say: ‘I’m just doing my duty here’.”
Harwood says the Bar Council does run its own sustainability network, with a focus on improving the profession’s carbon footprint, as well as making barristers “more climate-literate” by improving their understanding of the wider societal issue of climate change. However, what it doesn’t do is address the role that the legal profession plays in enabling new fossil fuel projects.
But things could be shifting, says Crosland. “We have heard about firms losing business because clients have queried why they’re working for fossil fuel companies. There can be a real commercial impetus to distance yourself from the fossil fuel companies.”
As we have reported previously, the courtroom represents a new front in the climate crisis, and a recent report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment suggests that the European Union’s new flagship decarbonisation package, Fit for 55, will lead to a growth in climate litigation cases.
Key litigious areas will be a push by civil society activists to ensure that national policies show real ambition; “just transition” litigation focused on the benefits and burdens of climate action; and disputes over what constitutes renewable energy, the report says.
And it’s likely that the next generation of KCs and solicitors will have an eye not just on the outcome of any cases, but also which legal teams are involved, and how.
In the United States the Law Students for Climate Accountability has estimated that since 2017, leading law firms globally have facilitated $1.63 trillion in fossil fuel transactions. The group, whose goal is to force the legal profession to face up to its role in exacerbating climate change, has produced a climate change scorecard on the 100 top law firms in the U.S., and is set to launch a similar report on UK firms later this month.
Crosland admires the group, and while no practice has yet come out with any firm climate change commitment as a result, he believes their work highlighting “which firms are working counter to the future of young people” could lead to some of the best young legal minds avoiding chambers and law firms that continue to represent the oil and gas industry.
“If law firms can be criticised for doing this work that is destroying the planet, it will be much, much more difficult for them to recruit young people,” adds Maugham of the Good Law Project.
  • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

    2 w

    this is amazing

    • winnie nguru

      2 w


      • Tabitha Kimani

        2 w

        This is enlightening. Lawyers should also be scrutinized on the role they are playing towards the climate change.

        • zelda ninga

          2 w

          I don't understand why would they spend allot of money for Green Economy and still drill Oil.

          • Edwin wangombe

            2 w

            This type of boycott is essential in the fight against climate change and it's contributors

            • Johannes Luiga

              2 w

              Important step!

              Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
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