The Cab Rank Rule in the Commonwealth: Reflections on the Ethical Duties of Lawyers

The UK Bar Standards Handbook provides that if barristers receive appropriate instructions from a client, they are required to accept the instructions irrespective of the identity of the client, the nature of the case and whether the client is paying privately or is publicly funded. This is the so-called cab rank rule, referring to the principle that at a taxi rank, taxis must take the next passenger inline regardless of who they are or where they want to go. The importance of lawyers being willing to act for unpopular clients was memorably illustrated by Atticus Finch’s decision to act for Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s iconic novel To Kill a Mocking Bird. Yet the cab rank rule often causes controversy. This discussion between three lawyers (Gautam Bhatia, Geoffrey Budlender SC and Helen Mountfield QC) from three different jurisdictions (India, South Africa and the UK), all of which recognise some form of the cab rank rule, will consider the cab rank rule’s application in their own jurisdictions. Each of the panelists will discuss their own experience and understanding of the rule and its importance (or not) for the rule of law.


Gautam Bhatia is an Indian lawyer, and a D.Phil (candidate) at the University of Oxford. He was in full-time practice before various Indian courts between 2014 and 2018, before commencing his D.Phil. He writes about Indian constitutional issues – including recent controversies around the cab rank rule – on the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog.

Geoff Budlender SC is an advocate practising in Cape Town. He works mainly in the areas of constitutional law, human rights, administrative law, and other aspects of public law. In 1979 he was one of the founders of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), South Africa’s first public interest law centre, of which he was subsequently the National Director. From 1996 to 2000 he served as Director-General of the Department of Land Affairs in the national government. He then re-joined the LRC, as Director of its Constitutional Litigation Unit. Since 2005 he has been in private practice as an advocate. He has acted as a judge of the High Court in Johannesburg and Cape Town. He is an Extraordinary Professor of Public Law at Stellenbosch University, and a trustee of the Claude Leon Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

Helen Mountfield QC is a British barrister and legal scholar, specialising in administrative, human rights, and equality law. She has appeared numerous times in the Supreme Court, European Court of Human Rights and Court of Justice of the EU. She is a deputy High Court Judge, a Judge of the Courts of Appeal of the Channel Islands and judge of the Qatar International Disputes Resolution Court, is a qualified mediator and a bencher of Gray’s Inn. She has been Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford since 2018.