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Online controversy alert: Hardwicke disowns article by own barrister after attack on Yewtree sex investigation

Since the rise of social media gave professional lawyers a fast-expanding number of outlets in which to publish their views, there has been a protracted (and often turgid) debate on the liabilities and brand risk for law firms and chambers regarding the statements made by their lawyers.

But this has appeared to be largely about lawyers being lawyers – hunting for the potential pitfalls and liability in any situation – rather than there being much of a problem.

That state of equilibrium now looks set to be jolted by the controversy regarding an article by Hardwicke Chambers barrister Barbara Hewson on the prosecution of presenter Stuart Hall (pictured) for sex offences. Hewson’s piece – written this week for online publication Spiked – constitutes  a robust attack on Operation Yewtree, the police investigation into allegations facing media figures in the wake of evidence emerging last year of abuse by deceased TV presenter Jimmy Savile.

Even allowing for the inevitable controversy in tackling such delicate issues, Hewson’s broadside makes extraordinary reading, arguing in the headline that Yewtree is ‘destroying the rule of law’.

The opening passage of the piece accurately sets the tone: ‘I do not support the persecution of old men. The manipulation of the rule of law by the Savile Inquisition – otherwise known as Operation Yewtree – and its attendant zealots poses a far graver threat to society than anything Jimmy Savile ever did.’

Hewson goes on to argue that Yewtree amounts to a disproporationate response to relatively minor offences, asserting ‘Britain’s law-enforcement apparatus has been infiltrated by moral crusaders’.

Perhaps most controversially she concludes: ‘As for law reform, now regrettably necessary, my recommendations are: remove complainant anonymity; introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions; and reduce the age of consent to 13.’

The BBC picked up on the call for the age of consent to be lowered in this report.

Unsurprisingly, Hardwicke responded with a statement bluntly disassociating itself from the piece: ‘We are shocked by the views expressed in Barbara Hewson’s article in Spiked (8 May 2013). We did not see or approve the article pre-publication and we completely dissociate ourselves from its content and any related views she may have expressed via social media or any other media outlets.’

While there have been the odd occasions of controversy for lawyers using blogging or social media – in particular Twitter – they have generally involved junior staff, or off-the-cuff remarks.

In contrast Hewson – who was called in 1985 – is a highly experienced barrister specialising in public and administrative law. It’s a safe bet that law firms and chambers will be getting increasingly nervous about their swelling ranks of tweeting, blogging lawyers in the months to come. This could be particularly acute at the Bar, which has generally proved far more adept at using social media as a communication tool than the blander efforts of law firms.

But let’s hope we avoid a knee-jerk over-reaction. Lawyers using social media have often provided a vigorous and informed contribution to public debate, whether people agree with their positions or not. Lawyers get it right in the vast majority of cases and will continue to do so in future. Hewson has the right to be wrong, though Hardwicke would prefer she did it on her own time.