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Standing out at the Bar

Submitted by on 28 Feb 2011 – 10:07

Government Gazette’s Marcus Papadopoulos spoke to Michael Mansfield QC about his career at the Bar

Prima facie, Michael Mansfield QC is an archetypal barrister–a white, middle-class, male, who speaks  in an eloquent, sophisticated and confident manner. But as the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, never judge silk solely by its sheen.

In a face-to-face, on the record interview in his apartment in Wandsworth, Britain’s most famous and boldest barrister described how his interest in the law and civil liberties came about, his motivating factors for taking on some of the country’s most controversial cases, his feeling of isolation at the Bar, his concern about the current state of civil liberties in the UK and his love of animals.

For over forty years Michael Mansfield has been practising law, primarily defence work, earning himself the reputation as one of the finest advocates a client could possibly want to represent them in court. However, it is Michael Mansfield the man, as opposed to Michael Mansfield the barrister, that has made him stand out in one of the most conservative institutions in the country. As he said: “During my career at the Bar, I have done things my own way. I have never been a remote lawyer.”

Michael is no ordinary barrister. He is a rebel with a cause-a Tony Benn of the law – who has  represented clients ranging from Irish republican terrorists to miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and who holds a deep distrust of the police and their procedures for collecting evidence. A staunch Republican who has no time for the archaic and traditional ways of the Bar, Michael has aroused great support from many ordinary people from across the class divide, including middle England, who feel they have an “ally” in him; someone who has not lost the traditional British sense of “justice” and who is “not prepared to allow civil liberties, the British way of life to be eroded.”

But how did this crusading barrister’s interest in the law and civil liberties come about? “I had no connections or knowledge of the law and so deciding to pursue a career in the law was a celluloid dream. The main influences on me were two different films: To Kill a Mocking Bird and an American television series called The Defenders. In the latter, a Father and son lawyer duo would give ordinary people an opportunity, who otherwise might not have been able to articulate themselves what the  problem was. These ordinary people were represented by somebody who not only understood what their grievance was but who felt committed to it such that the lawyer was standing in the shoes of the individual. This was a great inspiration for me.”

Michael has taken on some of Britain’s most controversial cases in the last forty years. He represented ‘Judith Ward, the ‘Birmingham Six’, the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday, the parents of Stephen Lawrence, Angela Cannings, Mohamed Al Fayed and, most recently, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. Many of his colleagues at the Bar would have steered well clear of these cases, viewing them with contempt or as the plague.

So why did Michael take them on? In one word, empathy – something which is frowned upon at the Bar. “When I started out I was advised not to identify with a client. I was told that I should be like a surgeon who comes along and deals with a body and does not get involved. But I had learnt at university (Keele in the Potteries) that there were great social injustices out there and that many people had not enjoyed the privileges that I had when growing up.

“The first cases I took on as a young barrister were representing people, of my age, who had been charged with possession of cannabis or heroin. I quickly felt the need to know more about my clients and to do more than just represent them. So I volunteered to attend drug rehabilitation centres in London and so understand how the people there had ended up in the position they were in.

“This experience was an example of how my life progressed. I wasn’t driven by some Marxist principle. I was driven by the fact that I had witnessed social injustice and I wanted to do something about it. To this day, I can’t and won’t detach myself emotionally from cases.”

If representing drug users in the late 1960s provoked disdain from many barristers, it was nothing compared to the outrage which would be expressed from members of the Bar as a result of who Michael represented next.

Following the Old Bailey Bombing by the Provisional IRA in 1973, Michael was thrust into Irish politics when he chose to represent the people who had carried out this act. “To my Mother and to people I knew, for me to represent an Irish terrorist was treason. There was also a great deal of hostility towards me at the Bar because of who my defendants were and what they had done.

“But when I met my defendants (the Price Sisters) I recognised the fact that they and their families had struggled hard with the democratic process to get their voices heard but had been isolated,   discriminated against and even bombed by the Protestant community simply because they wanted civil rights. I then said to myself that if I were in their shoes, if I had been brought up in Northern Ireland, what would I do? I would like to think I wouldn’t go as far as taking up arms, but who knows when provoked to that extent. I certainly have never condoned violence.

“So I got into the shoes once again of clients who had suffered social injustice. Representing IRA men and women more than anything else confirmed the view of people at the Bar that I was some kind of armed revolutionary because the establishment identified me with the people I represented.  Consequently I was made to feel an outcast at the Bar.”

Given Michael’s unofficial status as one of the country’s leading protectors of civil rights, what is his view on the current state of freedom in Britain? “I am not alone in believing that the situation today is very bad, and thinking people on all sides of the political divide hold the same view. We are now living in a surveillance society.

“I’m not holding my breath but the Coalition Government has put forward a libertarian agenda and I hope they keep to this rolling back of draconian measures and not use the economic excuse as others have of putting civil rights on the backburner.

“The Labour government inflicted a great deal of damage to civil liberties in Britain and that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to vote Labour for the first time in my life at last year’s general election, and I’m sorry it’s come to that.”

An interesting observation that Michael made-and one which gives pause for thought-is that some of the “misdemeanours” concerning civil liberties performed by politicians over the years have been “perpetrated” by lawyers themselves. “The recent attack on legal aid has come from lawyers in the House of Commons; the attack on the Bar has come from lawyers in the House. Given that one of the largest lobbies in the House comes from the legal profession, the fact that members have allowed legislation to be passed without proper scrutiny, when many of them are lawyers, I find horrific.”

The focus of the interview then shifted to a lifelong concern of Michael’s: animal welfare.

As a vegetarian for over twenty years and a patron of Viva!, a UK-based vegan and animal welfare organisation, Michael expressed revulsion at how society exploits animals for food, cosmetics, clothes and medicine. Asked about whether being a vegetarian makes him feel (again) as an outsider in society, he replied : “Not exactly an outsider because I’ve spent my life trying to challenge things so for me it was really an extension of the challenge of life. But back in the 1980s it was a battle. Today however, it is less so because more and more people are converting to vegetarianism. One of the ways you make a major difference in life is through the example of what you do; hence I became a vegetarian.”

The Government’s promise to hold a free vote in the House of Commons on repealing the ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales is of great concern to Michael. “Hunting, however its supporters dress it up, is about chasing animals across the countryside and tearing them to shreds. I am utterly opposed to activities of any kind where people get enjoyment from hunting.

Michael Mansfield’s life has been about fighting for the underdog-be it of the human kind or the animal kind-in court and out of court. Despite his many achievements in life, he is a remarkably modest man who sees himself as one of the people. This is summed up by how he wants to be remembered in life: “Someone who really cared and hopefully made a difference.” The people and causes he has championed during his life will, without question, answer his wish with a euphoric, “Yes!”