Liz Truss has failed to condemn vitriolic attacks on the judges who ruled that parliament must be given a vote before Britain triggers article 50. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
The justice secretary, Liz Truss, is embroiled in an extraordinary row with Britain’s barristers, after she was accused by the Bar Council of not fulfilling her role as “the conscience of the government”.
Truss has failed to condemn vitriolic attacks on the three judges who last week ruled that parliament must be given a vote before Britain triggers article 50, launching the Brexit process.
Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, the chairman of the Bar, the representative body for barristers in England and Wales, told the Observer that the cabinet minister had a duty to uphold the rule of law. “[Her job] is sometimes called the conscience of the government and one would expect her to speak out on something like this,” she said.
The high court ruling on Thursday, which the government has said it will appeal, unleashed a torrent of personal abuse directed at the judiciary, with one prominent cabinet member claiming the judges’ decision was “unacceptable”.
Under huge pressure to defend the independence of Britain’s judges, Truss – who is also lord chancellor – issued a terse statement, observing: “The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality”.
Former Tory minister Anna Soubry condemned Truss for failing to say more. She said: “[The] lord chancellor has a duty to condemn the vilification, including a homophobic attack, of our judiciary. [She] has failed in her duty to defend our judiciary. As a former barrister I’m embarrassed and appalled.”
Truss’s statement came nearly two hours after the Bar Council passed a resolution regretting the justice secretary’s lack of a public statement and calling on her to condemn the “attacks” as a “matter of urgency”. However, Doerries said the statement did not offer the required defence of the judiciary, at what she described as a “dangerous” moment.
She said: “We would wish her to go further. The resolution passed by the Bar Council called upon her to condemn the attacks on the judiciary and it is that we are still looking for. It is that which is so potentially damaging to the justice system in this country. As lord chancellor, it falls within her role to uphold the rule of law.”
Asked if Truss had lost the confidence of the legal community, Doerries said: “It is an early stage in her appointment. All I am prepared to say is that we were disappointed that she hadn’t made a statement. She has now made a statement and I don’t think it goes far enough.”
Doerries said the Ministry of Justice had been aware that the resolution had been tabled at the Bar Council’s meeting at 11.40am, before the vote was passed at 12.10pm. The one-sentence statement from Truss, lacking any condemnation of the attacks, was issued at 1.46pm.
The leading barrister said: “One of the things that is disappointing, even as of this morning before the resolution, is that the lord chancellor hadn’t made a statement given the extent and the direct nature of the attacks in the press.”
By convention, judges cannot defend themselves from personal attacks, and rely on the government to step in. In the wake of Thursday’s ruling the three high court judges had been described by the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. The newspaper’s website ran a headline that read: “The judges who blocked Brexit: One founded a EUROPEAN law group, another charged the taxpayer millions for advice and the third is an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer.”
Asked on BBC Question Time if the high court judgment flew in the face of democracy, the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “Yes, it does.” He added: “This is an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people, and it is unacceptable.”
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage also tweeted: “After today’s judgment I’m really beginning to question the independence of our judiciary.”
Labour’s Keir Starmer said it was Truss’s duty to come to the aid of judges. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
On Saturday a spokesman for Theresa May said the prime minister accepted the judges’ right to rule on article 50, but May issued a statement attacking those “who seek to tie our negotiating hands”.
The prime minister added: “MPs and peers who regret the referendum result need to accept what the people decided. Now we need to turn our minds to getting the best outcome for our country.”
Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, claimed it had been Truss’s duty to come to the aid of judges as justice secretary and lord chancellor, and accused the cabinet minister of making a “non-statement” on Saturday.
Starmer, who is now the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “The prime minister’s statement is a pretty desperate attempt to deflect attention from the failure of the justice secretary to do her duty. After a long deafening silence, the justice secretary has finally come out with a non-statement.
“The government should have condemned the personal attacks on our independent judges straight away. Undermining our judiciary is corrosive of democracy. Judges cannot answer back and that’s why it’s important for the government to defend them. It has failed to do so.”
The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said Truss, whose lack of experience and legal background had already led to criticisms of her appointment, had now lost the confidence of the legal community. “Many now have no confidence in the lord chancellor to fulfil her statutory duty to protect the independence of the judiciary,” he said.
Writing in the Observer, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, came to the aid of the judiciary, and suggested that she would be seeking for the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly to also have a key role before the triggering of article 50.
She writes: “The high court’s ruling could not be a surprise to anyone who followed the case. That it has come to this is not the fault of the judges or those who took this action to court – it is entirely down to the arrogant determination of the UK government to plough their own furrow without consulting parliament or the rest of the country about their negotiating strategy.”