When I was training to be a lawyer, one of the questions most frequently asked by non-lawyers was how I could defend someone that I knew was guilty. There was this perception that lawyers would simply continue to assert their client's innocence, no matter how much information there might be (even provided by their own client) to suggest that that was untrue. But that perception is wrong. If a lawyer is told of information that makes it clear that their client is guilty or culpable under the law, they have duties to advise their clients accordingly, and cannot mislead the Court as to their client's innocence. In some cases, this may ultimately entail refusing to act for the client. What is more, as a profession we are subject to extremely stringent rules in relation to making reports to appropriate authorities where there is a suspicion of money-laundering, or serious organised crime. Those obligations are onerous, and the sanctions for failing to make reports are extremely serious for the individual lawyer and for the firm.
The trade-off for those professional obligations, and for the heavy penalties for non-compliance with the gatekeeper functions imposed on lawyers by legislation, is that the core relationship between a lawyer and their client is intended to be sacrosanct. A client must feel free to inform their lawyer of whatever information they feel necessary, in order to be able to take advice that is appropriately informed and therefore as accurate as possible. They will not do that if they have concerns that the information might be intercepted.
Aside from these pragmatic concerns, though, is something more fundamental. If we are to be a nation which continues to pride itself on the rule of law, there are lines which ought not to be crossed; principles which ought to be inviolate. And where that is not respected, it is essential that people should speak up - to identify what has been lost and to try, if we can, to re-draw the line.
Conservative MP David Davis described it as a "national scandal". Raising the matter in the House of Commons, he said: "It has long been taken as the standard in this country that the relationship between a lawyer and a client is protected by privilege and communications between them are protected from intervention by the state. "What has become clear this morning is that not only is that not the case at the moment but that each of the three agencies have got policies for handling legally-protected material and in one case for deliberately withholding that material even from secret courts and security-cleared special advocates."