Are Delhi lawyers jeopardising justice?

The Lawyers Association's refusal to defend the men accused of the Delhi gang rape might be one step too far.

The recent shocking case of the rape and murder of a young medical student in India has sparked widespread debate about the country’s treatment of women. But it also raises questions over the ethics of their legal code: Recent reports have revealed that the 2500 members of the Lawyers Association in the district of Saket have actively refused to represent the six men accused of the crime in light of the public outcry it has caused worldwide.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that passions are inflamed to the degree that protestors have called for the death penalty. But what are the repercussions this legal protest might have for justice in India?

In the UK, barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board, which sets out that:

 A barrister who supplies advocacy services must not withhold those services on the ground that the nature of the case is objectionable to him or to any section of the public.

The regulations go on to state that a barrister must comply with the "Cab-rank rule," which means that they must accept any instructions from a field in which they profess to practice. India’s regulations are, interestingly, not too dissimilar. The Bar Council of India’s (BCI) states that an advocate "is bound to accept any brief".

This rule is qualified by an addition that says that “special circumstances may justify his refusal to accept a particular brief”. But what constitutes special enough circumstances to jeopardise justice? The right to a fair trial falls under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; if it’s deemed important enough to feature there then its merit can’t be just be dismissed.

AFP reported  that one member of the Saket District Bar Council, Sanjay Kumar, spoke on behalf of the lawyers:

"We have decided that no lawyer will stand up to defend them. It would be immoral to defend the case".

He goes on to say that the advocates have taken the decision to "stay away" from the case in order to guarantee "speedy justice". This seems outrageous: justice should be just. It should be allowed to take its course naturally, without intervening factors that might artificially achieve it.

One lawyer who has come forward to represent two of the accused, Manohar Lal Sharma, has been insistent that his clients should have access to a fair trial. Sadly this lawyer is acting with a different set of warped motivations. He declared that "I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady", placing the blame for her death “wholly” on the victim. Sharma not only personifies the serious issues India has with its perception of women, but also displays a clear misunderstanding amongst its lawyers.

Advocates involved in this case have openly passed judgement on the accused: the Saket District Lawyers’ Association made an assumption of guilt, while Manohar Lal Sharma deemed the men innocent, and is therefore willing to defend them. What is unfortunately forgotten amongst all this is that it isn’t a lawyer’s job to make judgement - that is up to the judge and jury.

If recent reports that the accused are being tortured in order to force a guilty plea are true, then a fair trial is even more imperative for the sake of justice. This in no way suggests that the accused should be emancipated without trial, or that they have not likely done wrong, but it is important to remember that the stance should be ‘innocent until proven guilty’. How can justice be served and guilty men adequately punished if a fair trial has not ensued?

Protesters demonstrating against rape in Delhi. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.