A radical at the bar
5 April 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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There are few more high profile barristers than Michael Mansfield QC, Lawyer2B met up with him to talk legal aid cuts, student exploitation and his anger at injustice.
Michael Mansfield QC’s career runs like a potted history of famous cases having represented those wrongly convicted of IRA bombings, the families of Stephen Lawrence and Jean Charles de Menezes, Barry George during the inquest into the death of Jill Dando and Mohamed al-Fayed during the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed. He also represented Fatmir Limaj, a Kosovan leader accused of war crimes, tried at The Hague and acquitted.
He started his career far away from any cause célèbre however. “The very first stuff I did, I did a civil pupillage and then a criminal one,” he says. “I was attending a drug addiction centre in Covent Garden to help with people off the streets. Through that I met a solicitor who had some other work, some political work, and I moved into political work.”
He started out as a barrister when legal aid had just started to come into force and has become known for taking legal aid cases. “When I started, legal aid had only just come in. It was pretty early days and it was frowned upon really. It was a poor relation of the welfare state when it should have been high priority”, Mansfield states, adding: “What frightens me is that we are now in a situation that is worse than it was then. With 40 per cent cuts on civil legal aid when there have already been cuts on criminal legal aid.
“But it is not really about the lawyers, although it is having an effect on lawyers. It is actually meaning that people who need ready access to implement and enforce their rights, whether it’s housing, employment or discrimination, really can’t do it. The advice centres are overwhelmed, they are closing, and I think it is outrageous.”
He rejects the suggestion that the gaps left by legal aid could be filled by student volunteers. “It’s a form of exploitation isn’t it?”, he asks. “Younger people who are keen to get into whatever profession they want to get into are having to work for nothing and probably losing money on travel and all the rest of it just to get a foot in the door.”
Despite cuts to legal aid and the numerous other challenges faced by would-be barristers, Mansfield believes that young barristers are able to carve out a career similar to his. “It is a very challenging and daunting situation but nonetheless I am encouraged”, he insists. “ The younger generation is full of enthusiasm and really want to do the job. And that is the most important thing, if they really want to do the job, they will find a way to do it.”
He believes that barristers will have to be more resourceful in future. “There are ways of resourcing and funding those areas, which are not the usual ones”, he says. “They may not be from the state so you may have to go to NGOs or raise money in other ways, as is often done now by other organisations in order to fund whatever it is you want to do.”
Mansfield is against any limit on the number of students allowed to take the bar professional training course (BPTC), despite only a small proportion of its takers going on to get pupillage with a chambers. In 2010-11, around 1,800 students took the BPTC whilst In 2010, 446 pupillages were registered.
“I think people have to decide themselves whether they think they are capable,” he says. “If you restrict the numbers of people coming up through the pipeline the argument is that you don’t want to disappoint them, but on the other hand there’s a whole welter of people who, on that basis, don’t get anywhere near the door. So I’m not in favour.”
Mansfield believes that this approach must be combined with students being aware of the difficulties that face them and taking responsibility for their career aims and decisions. “I think if they’re aware of the difficulties, you say to somebody: ‘It’s a pretty hopeless situation, on the other hand, if you feel you’re up for it I’m not going to discourage you from doing it, as long as you’re aware of the odds’”, he says.
He maintains that he does not know whether students are being put off a career at the bar because of the low rate of success. “I can’t make a judgement, in order to answer that I would need to know how many people had applied and been put off, how many had been put off before they had even applied”, he says. “All I can do is judge by the calibre of people who are still interested. My feeling is that people are finding it difficult but I am not convinced that there has been a huge drift away. I think people are still finding the prospect of life at the bar an inspiring one.”
So what has kept Mansfield himself inspired? And what would he tell his former student self today? “I recognise that I have been successful but it has not always been like that; in the beginning you are struggling like anybody else and you are struggling to map out an area of law that you want to do”, he says. “I think that the thing that has in the end has kept me on course has been a sense of anger about injustice. The anger about injustice has come from the fact that I have been connected to communities where there has been suffering – those communities are getting bigger by the minute.”
Of all his cases, Mansfield regards the inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s corrupt handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder as the case which has, up until now, set the biggest legal precedent. “It has uncovered systemic abuse, which was described as institutional racism”, he says. “And there were a lot of recommendations for change and it is not restricted to the police, once you see what the principle is. I thought that was pretty momentous for Doreen and Neville to have achieved that.”
“But there is one which I think will surpass that and that is Hillsborough. Because it is on so many fronts. Many more people died, which is one thing, but it actually involves all sorts of services from the football organisations to the emergency services, and the police were in the middle of all that.”