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In the line of fire part 1

How often do lawyers find themselves in danger or under threat as a result of matters which happen in the court room?

Public antipathy toward lawyers has been long-standing. During the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, lawyers were a particular target and some of their assailants marvelled at how lawyers when in danger seemed able to move much more quickly than you might have thought from their form and figure. How often in practice does actual danger to lawyers occur now? (I will leave to your own imagination whether when in danger lawyers are still quicker off the mark to protect themselves than you might imagine from looking at them).

In most of these QC blogs it is fairly easy to obtain details about their practice from a wide variety of lawyers. As indicated at the start of the series, details are changed sufficiently to ensure that neither the barrister whose story it is nor the client can be identified. Whilst most barristers are quite happy to readily chat about their practice and their lives, they are understandably less willing to talk about issues regarding dangers or threats. Whilst I have a number of instances which had been given to me, they are inevitably far fewer than in matters affecting the general run of practice, and in some cases where the story is second-hand (which I will specify) the details may not be entirely accurate and of course are utterly incapable of verification.

Possibly one surprise is that such instances are relatively rare. Recently in China a man called Zhu Jun forced his way into an office at the court building at Yongzhou in the Hunan province, carrying an automatic weapon and two pistols. He opened fire and killed three judges and wounded three office workers, before taking his own life. Apparently he had a grudge because of the way his divorce hearing had been dealt with, although it appears that none of the judges he murdered were anything to do with his case. That is a fairly spectacular instance of retribution being sought against lawyers of the type which you would not expect here. Having said that, for a very long period of time judges in Northern Ireland lived in a state of constant siege with the risk of terrorist attack or assassination. It was not just a question of being attacked in the court room. They could be attacked at home, or be the victim of a bomb designed to catch them as they travelled about during their private lives, or fall within the sights of a sniper's rifle. The strain of such judges must have lived under is unimaginable. I know of one very successful QC in Northern Ireland who, during the troubles, was offered High Court posting. He was going to write a letter of acceptance. However, it was lunchtime, it was a fine day and he thought rather than write the letter of acceptance immediately, he would take a stroll around central Belfast. It then dawned on him during his walk that, if he accepted the proffered judicial position, this was possibly going to be the last time in his life that he could ever saunter about the streets freely. He decided that a life under constant threat was no life at all, and therefore declined the position. One can only admire the fortitude and resolution of those who accepted and served as judges there.

However violence and threats against and even murder of judges and lawyers is not unknown, even on the mainland. Next week we shall look at instances.

Michael J. Booth QC