Rule of Law: Don’t take it for granted

Every now and again I sit across a table from a potential witness whose story inspires, up-lifts or reminds me of how much we take for granted…
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By Stephen Askins
Stephen Askins joined Tatham Macinnes LLP in April 2015 after 25 years at Ince & Co. A renowned maritime lawyer, Stephen was listed in the Lloyd’s List Top 10 Law Personalities in each of the past three years in addition to being named The Times ‘Lawyer of the week’ in late 2017 for his pro bono work on behalf of the “Chennai Six”.

Every now and again I sit across a table from a potential witness whose story inspires, up-lifts or reminds me of how much we take for granted. Two past examples jump to mind.

The first, a Croatian captain captured by pirates off Somalia who told me how he refused an order at gunpoint to get on his knees with his crew, saying that he would not kneel in front of his parents and that he certainly wouldn’t kneel in front of the gang in front of him. A great example of bravery and leadership.

The second, a 60-year-old Greek Chief Officer who abandoned his stricken ship in the South China Seas and spent two nights in the water before he was rescued and, it seemed to me, survived simply by refusing to succumb to what many would have seen as the inevitable.

Very recently I met a lawyer who had fled his home country with his wife and children and only what they could carry because he’d been told that he was on a list that would have seen him killed by the State for whom he worked. He is now in Europe with a special status as a political refugee. The country of origin is unimportant but his only “crime” was to start investigating the deaths of young people killed by the police or other less official law enforcement agencies during protests against the government.

He is not alone and hundreds of lawyers have seen reason to flee. At one point he looked at me and reminded me how lucky I am to work in an environment where there is respect for the rule of law backed by an independent judiciary.

That doesn’t mean that our courts always get it right, but it struck me that as a lawyer there is no chance that I could be arrested or worse, simply for trying to bring the State or government to account. As a father and husband I couldn’t imagine coming home from work and telling my family that my job meant that we had to leave everything behind; get to the nearest border and then steal our way across to a completely unknown and uncertain future armed with only what we could carry.

A robust and independent judiciary (backed by a sophisticated maritime arbitration service) underpins London as the world’s leading maritime dispute resolution centre. It is not a position it should take for granted and other jurisdictions would love to be able to offer what we have in London.

That judicial independence is so important and must be preserved. The importance of independence explains why there was such indignation from retired judges when the UK Supreme Court was so heavily criticised after their decision on the legality of the action taken by the UK government to trigger the Brexit departure process (the decision was independent and not political, yet the court was politically criticised).

The rule of law should never be taken for granted and it took a frightened lawyer exiled from his own country with his passport cancelled to remind me of that.

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