The Bar Council has called on the Indian Bar to end its refusal to represent a group of men accused of carrying out a gang rape in Delhi.
Individual barristers have also called upon their Indian peers to uphold “high ethical standards” so a fair trial can take place.
A statement from The Bar Council said that it was “concerned” by reports that both the Saket Bar Association and the Delhi Bar Association have resolved not to represent five men charged with the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student.
A judge in Delhi has ordered the hearings to take place in secret and there was an argument today when lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma offered to represent the men but was shouted down by colleagues, according to reports.
The Bar Council said no one should be deprived of the right to legal representqtion based on the gravity of the alleged crime.
It said: “The allegation in this case is horrendous, and has rightly sparked protest and debate about the levels of sexual violence in India, and the inadequacy of the response on behalf of the state.
“However, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are fundamental human rights, and cornerstones of democracy. Effective legal representation is a central component of a fair trial.
“Indeed, those accused of the most pernicious crimes have the greatest need for effective and fearless representation.”
Matrix silk Alex Bailin QC agreed, saying the Indian Bar’s current boycott was “completely wrong”.
“Whatever the strength of evidence, everyone facing a criminal charge needs effective legal representation – all the more so when the crimes are this serious,” he said.
“The English bar has a proud tradition of representing everyone regardless of the nature of the charges and strength of the case – I’m sure the Indian Bar has equally high ethical standards.”
Jo Sidhu QC of 25 Bedford Row explained that UK barristers do not have a right of audience in India so could not represent the defendants.
He said one of the key issues was threats to lawyers if they represented the defendants. At the moment an ‘amicus curiae’ – a neutral ‘friend of the court’ – is speaking on behalf of the accused.
Sidhu said: “No sentient human being can fail to have been horrified by the circumstances which led to the victim’s death in this case. And I fully understand the outpouring of anger and frustration of Indian citizens who are determined to see perpetrators of sexual violence punished.
“But no democracy can survive very long if its lawyers can simply be intimidated into boycotting defendants whom the public despises. Where would it end?
“Indian lawyers have been threatened with dire consequences should they agree to represent these men. Those lawyers have our sympathy. British defence advocates have also faced hostility when acting for defendants in notorious cases and yet we recognise that the system cannot give true justice to victims without us playing our part.
“From the local yob who terrorises his neighbourhood to the war criminal who terrorises an entire nation; all are entitled to representation.
“The gift of the verdict does not, of course, repose in the lawyer but in the people.
“I hope the Indian judiciary and government can find a way to reiterate these fundamental principles to their public. The credibility of their system depends on it.”