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UK lawyers unite to reaffirm client confidentiality

9 December 2014

The importance of lawyer-client confidentiality has been highlighted in a unique joint statement by the leaders of the legal profession from across the United Kingdom.

Issued to mark the first European Lawyers Day, held tomorrow, 10 December 2014, to coincide with International Human Rights Day, the statement emphasises that lawyer-client confidentiality is entitled to special protection by the state.

Advocates, barristers and solicitors in Scotland, England & Wales, and Northern Ireland together acknowledged the importance of the work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the national interest, but stated: “Such activities must operate within a legal framework which respects the fundamental rights and freedoms which characterise our constitutional democracy… the use of surveillance techniques must be attended by robust and transparent legislative, procedural and technological safeguards which are explicitly directed to protecting lawyer-client confidentiality.”

The “European Lawyers Day Declaration 2014” was jointly issued by the Law Society of Scotland, the Bar Council of England & Wales, the Bar Council of Northern Ireland, the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society of England & Wales, and the Law Society of Northern Ireland.

European Lawyers Day celebrates the common values of lawyers and their role in society promoting the rule of law. The theme of European Lawyers Day 2014 is mass surveillance and lawyer-client confidentiality.

James Wolffe, QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: “Lawyer-client confidentiality matters to anyone who needs or might need legal representation. It is a core value of the legal profession across Europe. This unprecedented joint declaration by the bars and law societies of the United Kingdom reflects our common commitment to fundamental professional values.”

Alistair Morris, President of the Law Society of Scotland, added: “It is essential for a client to have complete trust in his or her lawyer and that conversations and correspondence are treated as confidential. If we cannot be assured of this, it will lead to not only a breach in a lawyer’s duty towards their client, but a breach of trust and potentially limit what a client is willing to share. This ultimately would undermine our whole system of justice.

“It is very important that the intelligence agencies can do their work in order to protect the UK and those who live here. However they must also always uphold fundamental human rights and the rule of law."

The full text of the declaration reads: 

EUROPEAN LAWYERS DAY DECLARATION 2014

We, the Bar Council of England & Wales, the Bar Council of Northern Ireland, the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society of Scotland, the Law Society of England & Wales and the Law Society of Northern Ireland 

United in our commitment to the rule of law and the administration of justice and to the highest standards of professional conduct

Recall:

(1) that it is a fundamental duty of every lawyer to preserve and protect the confidentiality of the lawyer’s clients;

(2) that the lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality serves the interests of the administration of justice as well as the client’s interest;

(3) that, as the European Court of Justice has recognised, the lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality “contributes towards the maintenance of the rule of law”;

(4) that, for these reasons, the lawyer’s right and duty of confidentiality is entitled to special protection by the state.

We note that the issue of surveillance has given rise to great public concern. In light of those concerns, the Council of European Bars & Law Societies has expressed concern that “a core value of the profession ... known in some countries as legal professional privilege is at serious risk, and erosion of this aspect of confidentiality will erode trust in the rule of law”.

We affirm the importance of the work of government bodies engaged in law enforcement and national security in protecting the public and in investigating crime. Such activities must nevertheless operate within a legal framework which respects the fundamental rights and freedoms which characterise our constitutional democracy. If the fundamental values which we have affirmed above are not to be undermined, the use of surveillance techniques must be attended by robust and transparent legislative, procedural and technological safeguards which are explicitly directed to protecting lawyer-client confidentiality.

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