We can all fight for justice, says lawyer who champions the underdog
17 November 2009
By Chris Bond
MICHAEL Mansfield, QC, has been a barrister for the past 42 years.
During his trailblazing legal career, he has forged a reputation for
being a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be, whether it's
defending alleged terrorists and striking miners, or investigating
the death of the Princess of Wales and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.
He's frequently portrayed as an anti-establishment figure and a
"champagne socialist", although the latter description seems at odds
with his upbringing. "I was brought up a Tory and my mother was an
avid supporter of Margaret Thatcher," he says.
"I did not set out as a revolutionary, or an anarchist, that's come
out of the fact that I was prepared to question what hadn't been
questioned before and once you start asking questions you get known
for that and then people who want questions asked start to come to you."
Mansfield is speaking in Leeds, where he is the guest speaker at a
conference highlighting the erosion of young people's civil
liberties. He's become associated with fighting for the underdog,
something he traces back to his mother's arrest for parking on a
pedestrian crossing during the 1950s.
"My mother was so angry about it because she didn't do it that she
decided to fight the case herself. It went to trial and the police
officer who summonsed her had overlooked the fact that in the front
passenger seat was my father, who was disabled. The reason she was
acquitted was partly due to having an independent witness, but my
mother felt if the police could do that to her, what on earth were
they doing to everyone else? So at the age of 10 it instilled in me a
questioning which has stayed with me."
Another key influence was Ludovic Kennedy's book Ten Rillington
Place, surrounding the case of Timothy Evans who was convicted and
hanged for crimes committed by the serial killer John Christie. "I
read the book with horror," he says. "We now know the truth but Ludo
was a lone campaigner at a time when it was unheard of to challenge
the British justice system which was regarded as sacrosanct."
It inspired Mansfield and, having studied philosophy at Keele
University, he decided to read for the bar. His big break came in
1972, when he defended the Angry Brigade,a militant group responsible
for bomb attacks in Britain during the early '70s. "The person I
represented was acquitted and it's a bit like acting in that once
you've played one role people think you might be good at another, so
it's fair to say my career took off after that."
The Stephen Lawrence case is arguably the most significant he's been
involved with. "Doreen and Neville Lawrence didn't achieve a
conviction, that's true, but what they achieved was to force the
police and political establishment to reappraise their attitudes
regarding race, and they are a great example of an ordinary couple
who aren't prepared to accept the answers they're given."
Not all of Mansfield's cases have had such widespread support and he
was mocked by many for fighting Mohamed Al Fayed's corner in the
He became involved after being approached by Mr Fayed and believes
the media has perpetrated the "myth" that her death was an accident.
"The jury didn't agree with that and neither do I." However, he stops
short of saying she was murdered. "It was a very convenient
accident," he says. "Here is a young woman who believes she's not
going to live who ends up dying in a crash. I think it wasn't
intended that she should die, I think something else was intended and
it all went wrong."
Much of his scorn is reserved for the modern British political
system. "We have the Tories and Labour and the object they both have
is to ensure they stay in power and they do that by controlling the
He believes both parties have eroded civil liberties in this country.
"The Tories did it when they were in power by trying to reduce the
number of trials heard by juries and abolishing the right to silence
which was regarded as the golden thread of British justice. Then
Labour brought in a form of justice through Asbos and all kinds of
The biggest threat now, he warns, are potential cuts in legal aid
which would lead to "reduced access to justice" because fewer
solicitors will be willing to do the work. Even now, at the age of
68, he still finds himself angered by perceived injustices. "I get
angry if I see some injustice which I feel should not happen, that's
been there from the beginning. But I believe that you don't have to
roll back and accept it you can do something about it, and by that
I mean everyone."
Michael Mansfield launches legal advice clinic
One of the country's best known lawyers is to speak about his work
and his new book to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the
University's first legal advice centre
Michael Mansfield will also open The University of Manchester's
second free legal advice clinic in east Manchester this week ( Nov 18 ).
The pro bono clinic on Ashton Old Road, Openshaw, is a collaboration
with New East Manchester and the charities LawWorks North and
Manchester Settlement in association with The College of Law.
Mansfield famously represented four people wrongly convicted of the
Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings carried out by the IRA.
He has represented Stephen Lawrence's family; Michael Barrymore at
the Stuart Lubbock inquest and Barry George at the inquest into the
death of Jill Dando.
He also represented Mohamed al-Fayed at the inquest into the deaths
of his son Dodi al-Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales.
His book, The Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer, was published last month.
The clinic will be staffed by students from the university's School
of Law under the supervision of legal practitioners and coordinated
by an administrator funded by New East Manchester and employed by the
The Centre is sponsored by Clifford Chance LLP and Barlow Lyde and Gilbert LLP.
Manchester Settlement was founded by the University in 1895 though
strong links continue today.
The new clinic is an addition to School of Law's existing free legal
advice work: The Legal Advice Centre has been giving legal advice to
the public since it opened in November 2000.
Director and solicitor at the Legal Advice Centre Dinah Crystal OBE
has been involved in setting up the new centre.
She said: "We're delighted to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of
the legal advice centre by paying host to the distinguished barrister
and supporter of pro bono Michael Mansfield.
"We are also delighted to launch this venture in East Manchester
which will allow our staff and students and local lawyers another
opportunity to participate in clinical education and more importantly
to put something back into the local community.
Eddie Smith, Chief Executive of New East Manchester, said: "We are
pleased to support this new service in an area that still has
significant numbers of residents who require affordable access to
high quality legal advice.
"The advice service from The University of Manchester is a welcome
addition to the services that are being added to Openshaw to
transform it into a vibrant and sustainable neighbourhood.
"The Settlement's new premises complement other improvements in the
Openshaw neighbourhood, including the new health centre a short
distance away, new homes and a new district centre with a Morrisons
supermarket which is soon to be built."
Maria Gardiner, General Manager of Manchester Settlement said: "We
are delighted to be working in partnership with both the University
and New East Manchester to bring such a valuable service to the
residents of east Manchester."
Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of LawWorks which is a national
pro Bono charity, commented: "This is a wonderful example of building
access to justice through partnerships between students, lawyers and
"I am particularly excited that we are working with stakeholders in
Manchester in this way. I am really grateful to all our partners in
this venture and look forward to hearing about the progress of the clinic."
Paul Roebuck, pro bono co-ordinator at The College of Law,
Manchester, said: "The College of Law recognises the importance of
outreach work within the local area and is proud to be involved with
the launch of the new centre in east Manchester.
"Our students will be providing an advisory service, with supervision
from professionals in the field, which will not only develop their
skills as practitioners but will strengthen our relationship with
Manchester University, local partners and the wider community."