The people’s barrister
10 December 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
5 April 2013
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In keeping with his somewhat unconventional route into the legal profession, Michael Mansfield QC has built his considerable reputation on taking on the establishment and standing up for the underdog.
Described by some as “Britain’s boldest barrister”, Michael Mansfield QC has become synonymous with some of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice cases. His career history is the stuff all good legal dramas are made of. He is literally a living, breathing Judge John Deed.
So maybe you can understand why I am a little nervous about the prospect of interviewing him. I dial his mobile number. I count five loud rings and then hear a click. Oh God, this is it. But my panic is interrupted by a deep baritone voice singing “Knick knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone, leave a message after the tone…”. This is one of the UK’s top legal minds singing a nursery rhyme into his voicemail. Naturally, I am completely thrown.
Did Mohamed Al Fayed, too, baulk when he called to discuss the finer details of the inquest into the deaths of his son Dodi and Diana, Princess of Wales, or did he just coolly leave a message? I do not do cool, so I end up leaving a long stuttered recording. Well, I have blown that, I think to myself. But ten minutes later, Mansfield calls me back.
The Cambridge University reject is engagingly frank about how, almost by a series of chance encounters, he became a leading defence lawyer known for defending the indefensible, fighting for the underdog and keeping the flag of civil liberties flying.
He launches straight into how he was born in 1941 and brought up in the “unpretentious” suburbs of north London. He tells me how, as a boy, he helped his mother deliver election leaflets for their local MP - who happened to be Margaret Thatcher - and was cajoled into Young Conservative dances, where he met his first wife.
Mansfield’s interest in the law was fired in part by his mother’s battle over a parking ticket as well as watching the American TV series The Defenders.
“Most barristers these days aren’t just bright, they’re the very brightest,” he says. “Compared with the academic powerhouses who populate the modern Bar, I don’t quite have all the usual university stamps.”
Mansfield had an interview at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to read history, but he performed badly and was turned down. He then applied to a newer university, Keele, and was again rejected. His father had just died very suddenly of cancer, leaving his mother distraught. On top of the rejection from Keele, it all became too much for the young Mansfield. After learning that a friend of his had got into the same university with similar exam results and overwhelmed by a sense of injustice, Mansfield packed a bag and caught a train to Keele to confront the admissions tutor.
“He was surprised to see me,” Mansfield says, laughing at the memory. “But he said, ‘Okay, you’d better come in.’ I explained the situation to him and he said, ‘Right, I’m going to give you another interview now and if you pass, you’re in.’ So he asked me what I’d do if I had £1m. And I said, ‘I’d give half to my mother and use the rest to sail round the world, probably twice. I’d do that until the money ran out and I’d learn more than I would at your university’.” The admissions tutor let him in.
The bar exams, which Mansfield did by correspondence course, he says he found “mind-numbing” and only just scraped through after failing land law twice. “It was a case of three strikes and you’re out,” he says.
Mansfield admits his entry route to the profession was also by luck: he wandered into the Temple to hunt for pupillage, “as it were a loaf of bread”, and was referred by the Treasurer’s Office to a friendly barrister called Quentin Edwards at One Crown Office Row, who took him on ”without further thought”.
After being called to the bar in 1967, Mansfield’s career became one incendiary civil rights case after another, fighting for the underdog and changing the face of civil rights law. His first big break, and the case that shaped his career, was defending the Angry Brigade, an English anarchist group that bombed several ministers’ homes. The 1972 trial earned Mansfield a reputation as a revolutionary when he claims, “nothing could’ve been further from the truth”.
The first Irish case he defended, the next year, was different: he says listening to the Price sisters, who were eventually convicted of helping plant four bombs in London (one of which went off outside the Old Bailey, destroying Mansfield’s own car), “politicised” him.
“I came to believe that in the English system you’re innocent until proven Irish,” he says.
Mansfield went on to tear apart the forensic evidence on which the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four were convicted. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, he led the chairman, Sir William Macpherson, to rule that the police were “institutionally racist”.
At the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he represented families of the protesters shot dead by British soldiers in Londonderry more than 30 years earlier. Under Mansfield’s cross-examination at the inquiry in 2002, a paratrooper admitted, for the first time, that he had shot dead one of the protesters.
“The wife of the victim collapsed in court,” recalls Mansfield. “She said she had waited 30 years to hear him say that, to know the truth about how her husband died. She said she didn’t mind what happened after that, it was all she wanted to know.”
Perhaps one of Mansfield’s most famous recent cases was acting for Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son Dodi was killed in the Paris car crash with Diana, Princess of Wales.
Insisting that the tragic deaths were not an accident, Mansfield argues that there were many other issues touched on during the wide-ranging inquest hearings, including the missing Fiat driver, the missing three hours on the evening of 30 August 1997, during which Dodi’s chauffeur Henri Paul’s movements could not be traced, and the unexplained regular and sizeable sums of money going into Paul’s several bank accounts over the three months preceeding the crash.
“None of these could be resolved by evidence or reflected in the verdict,” Mansfield explains.
And he claims that Diana’s publicly recorded fears for her safety and her preoccupation with surveillance were found to be entirely justified.
“Unfortunately her predictions came to pass,” he believes.
Mansfield is often called a champagne socialist and he is roundly mocked for fighting Al Fayed’s corner in the Princess Diana inquest. But talking to Mansfield you get a real sense that he really believes in what he is doing.
“People think I’ve got this Marxism running through the body, a propagandist, or whatever they think I am. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he argues.
It appears that the barrister has had to battle with critics who believe his success is not built on passion and a willingness to take on unpopular causes, but more a love of the limelight. And at 67 years old, I ask him if it is time to give up the fight. Actually, he tells me, after 42 years he has “promised himself a break”.
The next few months will see Mansfield spend most of his time promoting his new autobiography Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer. And after that, he says he may take up work at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, working for the advocacy unit to represent victims of atrocities, such as those from Darfur.
“It would be a chance to do the kind of work I’ve been too busy to do until now,” he says.
But perhaps, most surprisingly, Mansfield tells me that he is doing a “roadtrip” to a handful of universities across the country to talk to students about life at the bar.
I wonder to myself if it is a secret mission to find his replacement now that there is a vacancy at the bar for a big personality to champion the underdog and unpopular causes.
“It’s hard for people to get into the bar nowadays, but no more than when I was trying to get a pupillage,” he insists. “The bar was much more of a closed book back then but if you’ve got the academic ability, talent, personality, drive and you’re extremely focused, you’ll get there.”
Mansfield adds that he used to operate an “open-door policy” at Tooks Chambers, which he founded in 1984 at the height of the Miners’ Strike.
“I’d meet lots of students at events or even on the street who would ask me for a job and I’d give them a chance. But sadly we can’t do that anymore,” he says.
So what does he think of the proposed aptitude test for the Bar Professional Training Course which is being talked about by the Bar Standards Board. After a pause, Mansfield says: “It’s important not to close your doors to talent, and if they do introduce a test they have to be careful not to make it too academic because being a good barrister is ultimately not about how much law you know but your ability to think on your feet.”