Prisoners of law?
4 March 2002
Louise Christian is enjoying the lull both after and before the storm. The day before we met, she had laid down the gauntlet to the Government over the treatment of the five UK Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
In front of a crowd of journalists gathered for a press conference at the Law Society, the founding partner of Christian Fisher promised that if the Government did not take steps by the end of the next day to persuade the US to let lawyers see those Britons detained at the prison in Cuba, she would take legal action.
Unusually, she is backed in her demands by both the Law Society and the Bar Council. The challenge was made on behalf of her client, Zumrati Juma, whose computer student son Feroz Abbasi is one of those being held in the cages that have caused such outrage.
When I arrive at the Christian Fisher office, there is still five hours before the deadline passes. Her mobile phone rings twice during the interview, but neither call is from the Foreign Office. One is from a student who immediately loses her nerve when Christian answers and has to ask to ring back. As it turns out, a letter does arrive from a Treasury solicitor before the end of the afternoon, but it is merely to explain that the Government could not meet the deadline, so Christian pushes ahead with her application for a judicial review.
Her approach is three-pronged, two of which are inevitably linked to the Human Rights Act (HRA) with the other based on UN law. Under the HRA, Christian will try to bring the Government to account under Article 5, the right to liberty, and Article 6, the right to a fair trial.
As for the UN law, according to its provisions on state responsibility, any state that knowingly aids and abets another state in the commission of a wrong act as recognised by international law, can be held responsible.
Christian argues that, as MI5 was sent to Cuba to interrogate Abbasi and the results of that interrogation were passed on to the US authorities, the UK can be held to be complicit in the unlawful treatment of the detainees.
She further argues that the treatment of the prisoners is unlawful even if they are not, as the US holds, prisoners of war.
Of the three possible statutes that could be accorded to those in Guantanamo - namely prisoner of war, hostile civilian or unlawful combatant - the last accords the least rights. The US argues that it accords no rights, but Christian has gathered together three legal opinions, all of which say that, under the Geneva Convention, their rights include due process of law and being told what the charges are. Thus, in Christian's view, the US is guilty under international law.
So far, so worthy, although some might question the wisdom of publicly trying to force the Government into a showdown with the US. Why not go down the route of gladhanding and quiet chats behind doors?
"We had a meeting with Barbara Amos of the Foreign Office, but I wasn't impressed by the response," says Christian. "The Government said that it was not going to respond to our legal opinion and there is no indication that the Government was talking to the US government."
So what response would be enough for her to drop the threats of legal action?
"We need to know that they [the Government] really are saying to the Americans that this really won't do. It's not enough that they've written a letter," says Christian.
How, then, would Christian answer those critics who, following her work on the inquiry into the Paddington and Southall train crashes, and before that the Marchioness disaster, accuse of her of courting publicity? This is an accusation that she has obviously heard before, as she certainly does not hold back in her own defence.
"Unlike lawyers that I could mention, I never do publicity for its own sake," she says. "I don't enjoy it, but I don't think it matters whether I enjoy it or not. What matters is whether it will advance a case for a client or not. There were a number of calls yesterday that I didn't return - for example, to go on Richard & Judy. I've never been on Kilroy, despite more than a dozen requests. And there were one or two things yesterday that I regretted doing - I went to do an interview with Channel 5 news, which I never watch, and I wasn't too impressed with the questions that I was being asked."
However, the next day she was in negotiations with the Trevor McDonald vehicle, Tonight, to travel out to Cuba together.
Those who argue that Christian is a publicity seeker could point to the last election, when she stood for the Socialist Alliance in Hornsey & Wood Green, the constituency of Home Office minister Barbara Roche, on an asylum seekers platform.
"The asylum seekers issue is something that I feel particularly strongly about," she says. "I didn't do it because I wanted to be in Parliament, otherwise I'd have stood for Labour. I did it because the Socialist Alliance was the only party that was prepared consistently to talk about the plight of asylum seekers."
In the end, not only did Christian not make it to Westminster, she also lost her deposit. For the record, Christian does not strike me as being particularly adverse to publicity, but unlike other lawyers hungry for the spotlight that I, too, could mention, she does not talk about herself constantly. She is pleasant, but if she thinks a question is daft, a bit standoffish. While she may have stood for the Socialist Alliance, Christian has more the air of a well-to-do charity fundraiser than an angry rabble-rouser. And if you are a glory seeker, then the Socialist Alliance doesn't exactly scream glamour, does it?
Does she not worry that, while representing the victims of rail crashes is fairly straightforward from a public relations point of view, the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay do not command universal sympathy in the same way?
"I think that if you do human rights work, then you're always taking on cases that are on the sharp end," she says curtly. She explains that, way back in the past, she took on a case against a businessman who is now facing a murder trial in the near future. As I do not particularly want to go to prison for contempt of court I will not name him, but Christian says she took on the case after a lawyer retired from it, frightened at what might happen to him.
"I have no such fears in this case," she says, rather unnecessarily. I was not really implying that she would endanger her life by taking on the case, but rather that she might become the scourge of those sections of the media which have no problems with Guantanamo Bay.
The case is being tackled on a pro bono basis, as are many of the firm's cases. "I need to earn a lot of money to keep this firm going," says Christian when I ask how much of the firm's work is done for free. "This firm has traditionally done pro bono work, but it's getting more difficult to do pro bono because firms like us, which survive largely on legal aid, are finding things more difficult financially. If we think that something is important, we'll always take it pro bono."
It could all have been so different - Christian could have had a swish office in the City rather than a rather cramped one near the British Museum, which looks like it could be on any high street. She did her training at Lovell White & King (now Lovells) and got a job as a litigator working with the now senior partner Andrew Walker. On leaving, the firm told her she could have been one of the first female partners, but while she found the work there interesting intellectually, she was not interested in what she was achieving. While there she did a lot of pro bono work, some of which was in Bethnal Green, where she worked alongside Peter Goldsmith, now the Attorney General.
"I stayed at Lovells for a year before I left," she says. "I got a really good training. I always ascribe to them the confidence that enables you to strut around the High Court - often people who trained in a legal aid firm don't have that."
It would seem that the Government is going to have to sit back and watch her do a bit more strutting before this is all over.