Brothers in law put up a fight

They are the wise guys. Richard and Ian Wise to be precise. And between them they have kept thousands of Britain's most disadvantaged citizens out of jail.

Last month, they won a landmark High Court ruling giving hundreds of fine defaulters the go-ahead to begin compensation claims for wrongful imprisonment.

Their influence is becoming legendary in prisons. So much so that one in 12 applications for judicial review before the High Court is brought by Richard Wise – and he does not even have any formal legal qualifications.

Richard, 42, has become the legal champion of the impoverished, fighting for the rights of fine defaulters jailed by over-eager magistrates.

And the lawyer representing Wise's clients in the High Court? Step forward brother Ian, a 39-year-old barrister from Doughty Street Chambers in London.

The wise guys have clearly found a niche market, paid for mainly by legal aid. Yet it is not love of money that is motivating the duo, but a desire to help people who committed mainly minor indiscretions and have ended up in jail through an inability to pay even the smallest fine.

Richard, who used to write Beak of the Week along with Paul Foot in Private Eye magazine, says: "There are lots of well-meaning lawyers around the country, but everybody seems to turn their backs on the biggest group of people in prisons and the biggest miscarriage of justice that has ever occurred. The Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four pale into insignificance with what is going on here and yet nobody seems to be bothered by it."

Between 1992 and 1995, 22,500 fine defaulters were jailed annually. The figure is now down to 8,500 – thanks to Richard's crusading campaign and the resultant criticism of the practice by the higher courts.

Lord Justice Brooke, in his 18 November ruling, said that magistrates had failed to treat jail as a "last resort". He overturned the jail term of six of Richard's clients, paving the way for them and hundreds of others to claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

"The reality is there are non-qualified people around who have specialised in areas of work, and because of their special interests they know more about the system than many qualified people," says Richard.

"Part of the criticism of why the system has gone wrong is because solicitors in magistrates courts have let their clients down. It is only when the quality of representation improves that we will get improved decision-making in the courts."

Besides acting in about 200 judicial review cases a year, Richard also has 150 cases going through the European Court of Human Rights – more, he believes, than any other lawyer on the Continent.

Richard says: "I have spent years and years banging my head against a brick wall in the Labour Party to find a political solution to some of these problems and I have been extremely disappointed at the way social injustice has fallen off the bottom of the Labour Party agenda. I feel sad that this is still going on."

Richard, who operates from HMB Law, a small firm in Biddulph, just outside Stoke in Staffordshire, finds recourse to justice through the courts more satisfying than playing politics.

"I was always committed to doing something about injustices and the way disadvantaged people got a raw deal," he says. "Originally I thought I could do that as a politician and I was a Labour councillor for a total of nine years in Staffordshire and Stoke.

"But I am extremely disillusioned about image politics and resigned as a councillor earlier this year."

He worked previously for the Citizens Advice Bureau in the late 1980s before joining Birmingham firm Tyndallwoods in its civil liberties unit. He moved to his home town Stoke in 1994 where he manages HMB Law's civil liberties team.

"We are a relatively tight team of people that specialise in child care, crime and public law," he says. "Because I'm not a lawyer, I have to be supervised. But because all the cases are in the High Court, we have to instruct counsel anyway, so in practice it makes no difference whether I am qualified or not."

Richard has become famous in Britain's jails , especially in women's prisons. He says: "What happens now is there is gossip within the prison system, so as soon as an inmate goes into prison there are other inmates or prison officers who say: You need to speak to Richard Wise.

"The average sentence for fine defaulters is about 15 to 20 days, but some of them have gone to prison for three months. If I don't get bail within six hours of speaking to the person, I have failed. That is the target I set myself. What usually happens is they spend one night inside, by which point they get to hear about me. Then they give me a call the next morning.

"My first port of call is then my brother. He worked in a tea factory in Crewe until he decided to utilise his undoubted skills and, for reasons best known to himself, decided to be a barrister. He trained late."

Probably no other barrister makes as many applications for judicial review as Ian Wise. He is, by his own reckoning, successful in the vast majority of them.

In court nine at the Royal Courts of Justice, his strong northern accent is in stark contrast to the clipped tones around him. Today he is fighting for the rights of a cerebral palsy sufferer in a battle over funding.

Ian has come a long way in a short space of time, having joined the Bar only in 1992. For 12 years he worked on the shop floor of a tea factory earning #100 a week. "It is good training. If you can hold your own on the shop floor, you can hold your own anywhere. It's a tougher life on the shop floor than it is in court," he reflects.

While working, he studied for six years for a history degree with the Open University to escape the day-to-day banality of his job.

Ian says the law was never really an option until his wife put him under pressure to find an alternative career to a life in the factory.

He became a barrister, practising criminal law for a couple of years before moving to public law. An invitation to join Doughty Street Chambers followed.

He is, like his brother, proud of the High Court victories on behalf of the thousands of Britain's fine defaulters wrongly imprisoned by over-zealous magistrates.

But then they are the wise guys. Or rather they are two working-class brothers from Stoke who have battled against the system – and won.