In Landmark Pledge, British Lawyers Say They Won’t Act in the Interest of Fossil Fuels

The litigators refuse to represent new coal, oil and gas developments or prosecute peaceful climate protesters

Protesters hold signs
Activists from Just Stop Oil marched from London's Pentonville Prison in February 2023 in support of the U.K.'s political prisoners, including seven from their organization. Susannah Ireland / AFP via Getty Images

A group of top British lawyers has chosen to defy the rules of their industry by refusing to act in the interest of fossil fuel projects. Last week, they signed a declaration vowing not to take action against peaceful climate protesters or represent new fossil fuel projects. 

The 120 mostly English lawyers, who named themselves “Lawyers are Responsible,” also called upon the government and their colleagues to do “whatever they can” to address climate change and promote an inclusive transition to a more sustainable society. 

“We’re refusing to advise fossil fuel companies on how to dig for new oil and gas, the same way we wouldn’t advise a killer how to commit serial murders,” barrister Paul Powlesland, who signed the declaration, says in a statement

In the United Kingdom, barristers, or lawyers involved in courtroom advocacy and litigation, must abide by the “cab rank rule.” This obligates them to take any case appropriate to their expertise, regardless of their personal beliefs about the case or their opinions of the client. By violating this rule, the declaration signees now face the possibility of disciplinary action, and some have already self-reported to the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers in England and Wales. The declaration is “understood to be the first time in legal history that barristers have engaged in a collective act of civil disobedience,” per the climate group Plan B Earth, which organized the action. 

Nick Vineall, the chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, called the move “disappointing,” per BBC News’s Charley Adams. 

“The cab rank rule prevents discrimination and improves access to justice,” he says, per the Guardian’s Damien Gayle. “It means that barristers sometimes have to represent people they disapprove of or disagree with. But the flip side is that clients can have the barrister they choose. It is for judges or juries to decide who is right and who is wrong, not barristers.” 

But Jolyon Maugham, director of the nonprofit Good Law Project and a signer of the declaration, writes in an opinion article for the Guardian that the cab rank rule assumes the law is right and worth upholding. As it stands now, he writes, the law enables “the destruction of our planet and the displacement of billions of people.” 

“Sometimes the law is wrong,” he writes. “What it stands for is the opposite of justice.” 

The declaration came just days after a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that rapid action is needed to prevent climate change’s worst impacts. According to the Plan B statement, lawyers have contributed to accelerating the climate crisis—top law firms in the United States facilitated $1.62 trillion in fossil fuel transactions between 2017 and 2021.

In the past year, dozens of activists from U.K.-headquartered organizations such as Just Stop Oil and the Extinction Rebellion have been jailed for blocking traffic, refusing to comply with court proceedings and engaging in other acts of protests. Recently, two members of Insulate Britain were imprisoned for seven weeks for telling a jury the climate crisis was their reason for protesting, against a judge’s orders.

“It’s the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction, that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty,” Tim Crosland, director of Plan B, says in the statement. “The rule of law has been turned on its head. Lawyers are responsible. It’s time to take a stand.”

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