Do right and fear no one: Leslie Thomas QC
16 June 2014 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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The 2011 London riots divided the nation.
Sparked by the death of Mark Duggan who was shot by police in Tottenham, looting and arson raged through the capital.
Did the violence represent an eruption of frustration at police treatment of minorities or an opportunistic attempt to shoplift half the city’s stores? The question was debated fiercely in the media and in streets, schools and offices up and down the country.
The inquest into Duggan’s death was similarly divisive, viewed as an urgent inquiry into police ethics by some and a time-wasting examination of the death of a known gang member by others. It was initially feared that the ‘lawful killing’ verdict – handed down nearly three years after Duggan’s his death – would reignite the riots.
Although the same level of anger failed to erupt, the family’s furious reaction to the jury’s decision that a Metropolitan Police officer lawfully killed the unarmed Duggan, and their chant of ‘No justice, no peace’ on the steps of London’s High Court, gained national attention.
The Duggan family’s barrister, Leslie Thomas QC, is used to unpopular causes, having built his career on actions against the police, usually representing the families of those who have died in custody.
His upbringing in the South London suburb of Battersea, in the days before its gentrification, brings him closer than the average barrister to many of the families he represents, but although he acknowledges that his “natural affinity in life” lies with the underdog, Thomas stops short of saying that race or background are motivating factors for him.
“A bigger drive for me is the injustice – that the police can do this to fellow human beings,” he says.
This need to fight for justice has been with him since pupillage. Steeped in contract, commercial and defendant personal injury work at 13 King’s Bench Walk, the younger Thomas would spend his evenings at no fewer than three of London’s law centres. “That was the way I would appease my soul – going to work at law centres in the evenings,” he recalls.
He landed the spot at 13 KBW by chance. Having secured a place at Kingston University (on the strength of his interview rather than his poor A-level grades), his goal of becoming a barrister was not looking too realistic, despite the fact that he only narrowly missed out on a first-class degree. The reason? He knew no one at the bar.
“Back in 1988 the bar and pupillage was an old boys’ network,” he says. “One of my tutors knew I wanted to go the bar, but I didn’t know anyone. He essentially got me a pupillage with a friend of his.”
After the first months of his pupillage, Thomas realised he was unfulfilled by his work.
“My supervisor was a lovely, very kind-hearted man but absolutely worked me to the bone,” he says. “The first month, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it, being a barrister.
As time wore on both his confidence and dissatisfaction grew. “I loved the black-letter law but I didn’t like the clients,” he admits. “I didn’t want to act for large, faceless corporations or companies who blew people up in their factories.
“I didn’t like negotiating claimant settlements with widows. My supervisor was very fair and generous when it came to settlements but my heart just wasn’t in it.”
It was then that he started working in law centres. Dealing with landlord/tenant disputes and wrongful arrests was the first step towards what would eventually become a career focused on actions against the police.
A meeting at a party thrown by one of the organisations he was working for, Liberty, was crucial.
“I got talking to this chap who was asking me about myself and he asked why I didn’t come along and work at his chambers,” he recalls.
The chap in question was Lord Anthony Gifford QC, who at the time was working on the cases of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, as well as representing miners and poll tax protesters.
The following Monday, Thomas found himself at Gifford’s chambers, Wellington Street, as part of a team of young lawyers working for radical and often unpopular clients.
He refers to his time at Wellington Street as “the golden age”.
“Life was fantastic,” he states. “We were based in Covent Garden above a wine bar. I used to get in at 7am and I was the last person out. I loved the whole environment.”
This golden age did not last, however. The death of one member and Gifford’s departure to work on death row cases in Jamaica, led to the break-up of the set.
Thomas was at a year’s call and already making a name for himself. The decision to join his next chambers, Garden Court, was based partially on its practice areas but also on the desire to go somewhere where he would have stability.
He is still there 25 years later. “Our motto is ‘Do right and fear no one’,” he says. “I love that motto.”
Thomas’s early work at Garden Court focused on battles between individuals and institutions. His specialism in inquests and police action came about when in 1993 he was instructed on behalf of a mother whose son had died in police custody while in the restraint position.
“It was then that I realised the injustice of the coroner’s court,” Thomas says. “In those days, all you were allowed was the client’s statement and a summary sheet of the case. Those acting for the state, the chief constable, the ambulance service, would have lever-arch files. The coroner treated you as a nuisance and made you feel guilty for asking searching questions.”
The case struck a chord with him.
“It did not seem right that this young man, who was restrained, would suddenly stop breathing,” he says. “The original pathologist just said it was sudden adult death syndrome. I was trying to establish the fact that perhaps the death had something to do with the fact that multiple police officers were restraining this person when they exhaled their last breath.”
Positional asphyxia, which Thomas became a specialist in, occurs when a person’s position does not allow them to breath properly.
An open verdict was recorded and it was one of the first recorded instances of a possible death by restraint verdict.
After the case ended, Thomas focused on learning about death as a result of restraint, taking on more cases as the years passed and eventually dedicating his career to it.
In 1997, he handled the case of Wayne Douglas, who died in police custody after being arrested on suspicion of burglary.
Like Mark Duggan, his death had sparked a violent outpouring, with the second round of the Brixton riots. “Last night happened because the only time a black man is seen and listened to is when he comes out on the street,” The New York Times quoted a Brixton resident as saying at the time.
Douglas had died while being restrained by multiple police officers. A positional asphyxia verdict was recorded and Thomas found himself doing only police action cases from then on.
His work five years later, on the case of Christopher Alder, who was found to have died of the same cause at Hull police station, made Thomas believe he would no longer come across this particular brand of senseless death.
“Police forces up and down the country received training on positional asphyxia and I thought these deaths were a thing of the past,” he says. “Boy, did I get that wrong.”
Just two years ago he took on another case that mirrored those of Douglas and Alder.
Sean Rigg was a musician living in Brixton who suffered from schizophrenia. Police received calls from multiple members of the public who had witnessed Rigg experiencing a schizophrenic episode. Initially, they failed to answer the call. When they did, they took him to Brixton Police Station.
“The police completely and utterly messed up,” Thomas asserts. “They took him to the police station when he was clearly in a poor state, and watched him – and I do mean watched him, it was captured on CCTV – die in a police station cage.
“In the 21st century, that is not the way we should be caring for those with mental illnesses. It was not because those officers had not been properly trained: they had been – we examined their training in great detail during the inquest.”
Rigg, Douglas and Alder were all young black men, as are many of those subject to stop-and-search procedures or alleged mistreatment by the Metropolitan Police. Research by the Institute of Race Relations showed that in 2012 police were 28 times more likely to stop and search black people than white people.
When asked if race drives him, Thomas hesitates and then adopts a matter of fact tone.
“To be honest with you, I’ve been stopped and searched,” he says lightly. He sounds bemused that anyone could be surprised about the fact. “Of course I have.”
“When I grew up, as a young black man who was attempting to keep his nose clean, you could not walk the streets of London – and I don’t mean with any nefarious characters, I mean just walking home from school – without coming across the Metropolitan Police.
“It’s the experience that most black men in the 1980s would have experienced. I am no exception to the rule, I was stopped on occasion and have been questioned.”
Despite not wanting to list race as a motivating factor, he does acknowledge that a large proportion of his clients are young black men and that he has worked on cases where the police’s motivation has been “downright discriminatory”.
The injustice has taken its toll on Thomas. “I’m completely jaded,” he confesses. “You can’t deal with death day in, day out and not be jaded. You cannot do these cases without it taking a piece of your soul.”
The knowledge of the next case, and the next bereaved family, is what spurs him on. “I know that a family is depending on me and it gives me a boost,” he says. “Plus, I love the theatre of the courtroom – I love being an advocate.”
The Duggan case was the most high-profile of Thomas’s career to date. “There was a lot on the line,” he says. “I would be lying if I said that there was not huge disappointment on my part that we didn’t manage to convince the jury that Mark had been unlawfully killed.”
A judicial review is on the cards, although a date has not yet been set. Duggan’s legal team is arguing that the jury should have been told that if it decided Duggan was not holding a gun in his hand at the time of his death, it should have also been instructed that returning a verdict of lawful killing was not allowed.
Thomas is now occupied with the continuing inquest into the Hillsborough stadium disaster, which is expected to last a year. He will represent 11 of the 74 families involved, as well as leading teams including the pathology unit, because of his expertise in questioning pathologists and doctors over the years.
“We are going into the unknown with Hillsborough,” he admits. “There has never been anything like it before and there is a great deal of apprehension for many of the lawyers. It will be an interesting year.”
Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers
1984-87: LLB, Kingston University
1988: Starts pupillage at 13KBW
1989: Joins Wellington Street Chambers
1990: Joins Garden Court Chambers
2012: LALY award for Legal Aid Barrister of the Year
2013: LLD Honorary Doctorate for services for civil rights, Kingston University
2014: Appointed as a QC, named in The Lawyer magazine’s Hot 100 for 2014