On 12 February, I attended, online, the Vienna Bar Presidents’ Conference; the first major international legal event of the year and an opportunity for newly elected Bar leaders to meet European colleagues.

Before the pandemic I had intended to travel to Vienna by train, rather than flying, and in so doing retrace a journey I made as a teenager through the middle of Europe. My train ride to Austria, in 1976, a few years after the Vienna Conference was established, took place against the backdrop of demonstrations in Poland, a brutal police crackdown and long prison sentences imposed on protesters who had no realistic prospect of challenging the State through the courts. It was also the beginning of the democracy movements which in Poland and other Eastern European countries led to the fall of the Iron Curtain after a wave of revolutions in 1989. A year later, in 1990, the United Nations adopted a set of global principles to safeguard lawyers, among them that: ‘Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.’

That principle underpins the basis on which barristers appear in our courts. They represent their clients and present their arguments; they do not need to identify with them. Irrespective of whether individuals on social media, in government or elsewhere agree or disagree with the merits of a client’s case, the barrister instructed must represent them whatever their own views are on the matter. They should not be subject to attack for doing so; whether in the media or at party conferences. An attack of this sort is, in truth, an attack on the rule of law itself.

This goes hand in hand with the cab rank rule which lies at the heart of the profession’s independence and ensures that access to legal representation is real and does not depend on public or personal sentiment.

The theme of this year’s Vienna Conference was ‘Rule of law and democracy – closing the gap between policy and practice’. It could not have been more apposite. The optimism of 1990 now seems misplaced. According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, over the last three years there has been a continuing global deterioration in the rule of law, marked by the rise of emboldened authoritarian regimes. The threat is much closer to home than we might think.

It was sobering to be presented with a draft resolution from the Romanian representatives appealing to their own authorities to respect the rights of lawyers, citing as the first of their concerns the identification of lawyers with their clients ‘and, by extension, with the political affiliations of their clients or the crimes they are accused of’. That echoed the description of the state of the justice systems in Poland and Hungary by Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld and contributions by Patricia Lee Refo, President of the American Bar Association, focused on the final days of the Trump Presidency.

However, I was most struck by the first keynote speaker, Shirin Ebadi, a former Iranian judge and human rights lawyer, now in exile in the UK, who was the Bar Council’s International Rule of Law Lecture speaker in 2017. After a chilling, at times harrowing, description of the treatment of lawyers by the Iranian regime she was asked what lawyers should do when faced with such inequity. She did not equivocate in her answer; lawyers everywhere should be seen to respect the rule of law and work to uphold it.

It was a reminder that the right not to be identified with our clients’ causes means that we must take care about publicly identifying with them ourselves. There can be no room for deliberate breaches of court rules and embargoes to make a point about adverse rulings or with the intention of righting wrongs by other means; however much the cause may seem to be a just one.

The same is true of what we say in public outside of the courtroom and the litigation context, all the more so in the internet age. Barristers may, of course, express a personal opinion in the media or make a public statement – even in relation to anticipated or current proceedings in which they are or may be involved. But the exercise of these freedoms is subject to our general professional duties: including our core duties to the court and our obligation not to bring the Bar or the administration of justice into disrepute.

The Bar Standards Board guidance on social media gives a sensible warning: ‘It is also advisable to avoid getting drawn into heated debates or arguments. Such behaviour could compromise the requirements for barristers to act with honesty and integrity and not to unlawfully discriminate against any person. You should always take care to consider the content and tone of what you are posting or sharing. Comments that you reasonably consider to be in good taste may be considered distasteful or offensive by others.’

Barristers are at the very heart of our justice system. Our obligation not to behave in a way which is likely to diminish public trust and confidence applies at all times and is the prosaic daily contribution that we all make to upholding the rule of law. As Shirin Ebadi reminded us at the conference; respect for the rule of law begins with lawyers.