Judge who ruled against Assange built career as barrister defending UK government

by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 16 June 2023

Jonathan Swift, the High Court judge who has just rejected Julian Assange’s attempt to halt his extradition to the US, is the government’s former top lawyer and previously defended the Defence and Home Secretaries.

  • Swift was entrusted to act for the Defence and Home Secretaries in at least nine legal cases
  • His “favourite clients were the security and intelligence agencies” while representing the government

Jonathan Swift, the High Court judge who has rejected Julian Assange’s appeal against extradition to the US, has a long history of working for the government departments that are now persecuting the WikiLeaks founder.

Swift, who ruled against Assange on 6 June, was formerly the government’s favourite barrister. 

He worked as ‘First Treasury Counsel’ – the government’s top lawyer – from 2006 to 2014, a position in which he advised and represented the government in major litigation. 

Swift acted for the Defence and Home Secretaries in at least nine cases, Declassified has found. He also acted for the Cabinet Office, Justice Secretary and the Treasury, during his time as First Treasury Counsel.

Swift also represented the Foreign Office in at least two legal cases, in 2011 and 2015.

While barristers are independent, those who regularly represent the government in the highest profile cases have to be “cleared” to do so, including via security vetting, Declassified understands.

When he stepped down as First Treasury Counsel in March 2014, the attorney general’s office “expressed their appreciation for Jonathan’s valuable support, advice and advocacy during his period as FTC.” 

It was reported in 2013 that Swift had been paid nearly a million pounds – £975,075 – over the previous three years for representing the government.

Swift now presides over Assange’s extradition case being fought by the Home Office for whom he previously worked.

As with previous judges who have ruled against Assange, the case raises serious concerns about institutional conflicts of interests at the heart of the UK legal system.

‘Favourite clients’

Swift was appointed a deputy high court judge in 2016 and a full judge in August 2018. A June 2018 interview with Swift in a legal publication noted that his “favourite clients were the security and intelligence agencies” referring to his time as First Treasury Counsel. 

“They take preparation and evidence-gathering seriously: a real commitment to getting things right”, he was quoted as saying.

The interview also mentioned Swift was undertaking work for “foreign governments” although Declassified has not been able to establish which governments these were. 

Swift took up his current post of judge in charge of the Administrative Court in 2020. A long standing QC with prominent law firm 11KBW, he was in 2018 also a legal adviser to a committee of the City of London Corporation. 

In June last year, Swift ruled that a deportation flight to Rwanda could go ahead, refusing to accept arguments to stop the flight by several asylum seekers facing offshoring to Rwanda.

National security cases

Several cases in which Swift acted for the government while First Treasury Counsel concerned national security, on which the judge is now expected to adopt an impartial approach. 

Swift represented the Treasury in the first case before the new Supreme Court in 2009, concerning international sanctions against terrorists.

In 2014 he acted for the defence secretary in a case against three former interpreters for UK forces in Afghanistan who won the right to bring their case to the High Court for alleged discrimination. The interpreters argued they were in danger and should be allowed to settle in Britain.

In an earlier case, in 2007, Swift also represented the UK Ministry of Defence in a case against a UK/Iraqi national who had been held by British troops at detention facilities in Iraq. The man argued his detention infringed his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Much of the WikiLeaks disclosures for which the US seeks to prosecute Assange relate to Western military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another of Swift’s cases as First Treasury Counsel concerned disclosure of information to the public. He acted for the attorney general in a long-running freedom of information case brought by the Guardian seeking to release the private correspondence between Prince Charles and government ministers.

In February 2014, attorney general Dominic Grieve blocked the publication of the letters, overruling an independent freedom of information tribunal that had ordered their release. 

Swift, acting for Grieve, told the court that the minister “was entitled to take a different view on matters of public interest from the tribunal”.


In his rejection of the appeal by Assange’s lawyers, Swift curtly dismissed all eight grounds to their arguments as “no more than an attempt to re-run the extensive arguments made to and rejected by the District Judge”, who previously ruled on the case.

Media freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres said Swift’s ruling brought Assange “dangerously close to extradition”. 

It added it was “absurd that a single judge can issue a three-page decision that could land Julian Assange in prison for the rest of his life and permanently impact the climate for journalism around the world.”

The US government seeks to extradite Assange in order to try him in connection with WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked classified documents that informed public interest reporting around the world. 

Assange faces a possible 175 years in prison and would be the first publisher prosecuted under the US Espionage Act.