Graham Ogilvy: Brutal attack on much-respected lawyer may be tip of iceberg

Thursday's vicious and brutal attack on Glasgow solicitor Joe Shields has sent shock waves through the legal profession in Scotland and there has been no shortage of messages of support and sympathy for a much-respected lawyer.

The incident happened outside Glasgow Sheriff Court. Picture: John Devlin
The incident happened outside Glasgow Sheriff Court. Picture: John Devlin

It is unconscionable that anyone should be the victim of a targeted stabbing and slashing as they go about their lawful business. But, sadly, the high-profile assault on 63-year-old Mr Shields may just be the tip of the iceberg.

I doubt if there is a criminal lawyer in Scotland who has not been subjected to threats of physical violence at some time in his or her career as well as the verbal abuse that now comes with the territory.

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As the assault on Mr Shields demonstrates, these threats can become frighteningly real. Among my own acquaintances, I have known three solicitors to have been subjected to lengthy, harrowing and nightmarish campaigns of intimidation. Others have been assaulted in the cells while another had his home petrol-bombed.

Most chillingly, a Dundee law firm was targeted by a sophisticated bomb plot which saw one employee grievously wounded and a potentially lethal bomb sent to a retired partner. Last year police felt it necessary to install alarm devices in the home of at least one Glasgow lawyer.

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Lawyer slashed in the face outside Glasgow Sheriff Court

On a daily basis, lawyers deal with some of society’s most difficult and dangerous members in what are often extreme and stressful circumstances.

Public sector unions, along with shopworkers’ representatives, are campaigning for the law to impose stiff penalties in cases of violence against their members. They are seeking parity with police and emergency services staff in obtaining added protection from the law.

That protection must be extended to the legal profession too. It is not a matter of special treatment but a case of catching up. There is an irony in lawyers who seek to enforce health and safety legislation and who campaign for the rights of others to be respected, finding themselves at risk. The cobbler’s bairns are indeed the worst shod.

The Law Society should consider a confidential survey of members to establish just how many have been threatened with violence and subject to campaigns of abuse and how the safety of their members can be improved.

The continued opprobrium heaped upon lawyers by the media does not help and there is a link between the attitudes fostered by irresponsible tabloids and the targeting of professions or minorities. That is why the authorities in England and Wales have warned police to be prepared for a spike in hate crime as the Brexit crisis unfolds. And, when the blame game for this particular shambles begins lawyers will once again be singled out.

Nobody is suggesting that there should be a return to the days of deference towards lawyers or, indeed, any profession. But lawyers, just like everyone else, deserve to be respected. They have earned that respect but to obtain it, they will have to fight for it.

Graham Ogilvy is the editor of Scottish Legal News, where this article was first published