Morality bites

Human rights lawyer Phil Shiner is determined to bring the UK to book over the war in Iraq. Jon Robins reports

How’s your father? If the tabloids are to be believed – and that’s a big ‘if’ – then his recent work representing the families of 13 dead Iraqi civilians makes this a more than legitimate question to ask human rights lawyer Phil Shiner. “The tabloids have gone snooping around in my private life. They’ve interviewed my father and tricked him into saying something derogatory about me,” says a clearly wearied Shiner. “Frankly, my childhood relationship with my father isn’t a matter of public interest.”

For the second time in the past two years, the 48-year-old lawyer and sole practitioner at Birmingham firm Public Interest Lawyers finds himself at the centre of a legal storm that could well have profound consequences for the Government. The last time Shiner graced the pages of The Lawyer in February 2003, he had just presented a letter before action to Downing Street on behalf of CND, warning Tony Blair that if the UK was involved in the use of force against Iraq, he personally could be prosecuted for war crimes.

The solicitor, together with Rabinder Singh QC of Matrix Chambers who was also working on the Iraqi civilians case, effectively kick-started the debate about the legality of a war with the February case. It still rumbles on with their latest high-profile challenge.

Obviously the CND case was unsuccessful, but it made legal history insofar as the appeal judges made an unprecedented ruling that, even if the group lost, its liability to pay the Government’s costs should be limited. “The judges felt that the Government could effectively bully us,” an ebullient Shiner told The Lawyer. “But the court also felt that we were being very reasonable, so that was a real victory for us.”

Shiner is well used to controversy. He recently acted for the Hartlepool campaigners who succeeded in the High Court in blocking plans to break up a fleet of contaminated US ghost ships in Teesside and is advising the Gurkha soldiers in their compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence. Prior to his anti-war work, Shiner was behind a number of anti-nuclear actions, including a Court of Appeal challenge concerning the manufacture of nuclear weapons at Aldermaston and a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights concerning the deployment of Trident II.

This time around, though, Shiner has lost some of his sheen and is clearly feeling pummelled by the relentless and personal press vilification. In particular, the Daily Mail has gone for the jugular, calling the lawyer “poison-tongued” and “publicity-grabbing”. (It was also the Daily Mail which reported that Shiner’s latest case was “unlikely to improve already tattered relations with certain other members of his family who can’t stand his ‘arrogance’”.)

Under an enormous headline ‘Anyone else want to sue?’, the paper ran a story about Shiner on the front page, claiming that the lawyer had “caused anger and revulsion”.

While the press onslaught is taking its toll, Shiner more happily talks about the Iraqi challenge. The action hinges on the question of whether the Human Rights Act 1998 and European Convention on Human Rights apply when the UK, or another EU member state, has effective control of another territory.

“It would have dramatic implications for the accountability of what has happened post-occupation in Iraq and bring Human Rights Convention and Geneva Convention IV principles [relating to the protection of civilians] to bear on future conflicts,” he says. “It’s not about tying the hands of soldiers who have important work to do on behalf of the state at a time of war. It’s about what happens after that.” If the human rights action fails, then there is the possibility of personal injury claims against the Ministry of Defence.

How does Shiner respond to his many critics, who say his action is irresponsible and undermining the work of our troops? He replies that he would be “very happy to constrain” the kind of abuse that has been alleged to have been committed by some UK troops. “I want that to stop and not be repeated,” he says.

Most of his Iraqi clients have lost their loved ones to flying bullets, shrapnel or cluster bombs. More controversially, a number feature abuse allegedly committed by UK soldiers while in custody, including Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist who was allegedly beaten to death last September by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. His father, a colonel in the Basra police force, told The Guardian that when he arrived at the UK military morgue to identify his son’s body, it was a bruised, bloodied and badly beaten corpse.

Speaking prior to the admission by the Daily Mirror that it had been “hoaxed” over its notorious photographs chronicling abuse by UK soldiers, Shiner says such images are “a sideshow”. “From the evidence emerging from our cases, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and interviews with anonymous soldiers, it’s clear that there’s been systematic abuse, humiliation, ill treatment, killings and torture – and not just from a few rogue elements,” he says.

There has been much criticism heaped on the lawyer for sending out a case worker, Mazin Younis, to Iraq to find families whose relatives have been allegedly killed by UK troops. The Labour MP Gisela Stuart described it as “disgraceful ambulance-chasing”.

Shiner vigorously denies the charge of trawling for cases and says he is simply a human rights lawyer doing what human rights lawyers do. He points out that there is no point in chasing ambulances if there is no money to be made. The Legal Services Commission has yet to decide whether the cases will be backed by public money, despite an application being made on 25 February.

Clearly, the press caricature of Shiner as a money-grabbing legal aid lawyer on the make is demonstrably absurd. One only has to look at his track record of worthy causes to realise that there have to be easier ways for a lawyer to make money.

So how has a sole practitioner from Birmingham ended up running two of the most explosive legal actions in years? “I’m an international human rights lawyer and I believe the war [in Iraq] is illegal and what has happened post-occupation is illegal. I have a profound conviction that the war is morally wrong,” he replies. “This isn’t socialist, political or any of the other nonsense accusations that have been made – for me, it’s a question of morality.”
Phil Shiner