Bound by civil liberties

Shaun Pye meets Geoffrey Bindman after his double victory- for Ammnesty in the Pinochet case and in getting the Hanratty case to the Court of Appeal

Many crusaders never get to see the profit of their struggles. So Geoffrey Bindman, senior partner at Bindman & Partners, must be feeling quietly satisfied. Two campaigns, both spanning 25 years, recently bore fruit almost simultaneously.

It was in 1974 that Bindman was invited to Chile to observe the trials of members of the government deposed by General Pinochet’s coup. Bindman says that there followed “the grossest abuses of human rights ever to take place as Pinochet’s government maintained power through terror and murder”.

Bindman subsequently represented Dr Sheila Cassidy who was arrested and tortured in Chile for allegedly giving medical help to an enemy of the state, and William Beausire who is thought to have been killed in Chile. In the recent House of Lords wrangle over Pinochet’s extradition to Spain, Bindman represented the interests of Amnesty International.

He describes the decision to reject Pinochet’s plea for diplomatic immunity, albeit for alleged crimes committed only after 1988, as “a great and remarkable achievement”. For Bindman it is the end of a long voyage during which, he says, it seemed unlikely that Pinochet would ever be arrested and face trial.

It was also in 1974 that Bindman was asked by the family of James Hanratty to represent them at the inquiry into Hanratty’s conviction for rape and murder, for which he was executed in 1962. The inquiry concluded that the conviction was safe – a decision supported by a succession of Home Secretaries until the ruling late last month by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal.

It is understood the CCRC unearthed damning evidence, including witness statements and a police notebook showing the mileage on Hanratty’s car, which destroyed crucial identification evidence. Neither the statements nor information about Hanratty’s car were shown to the prosecution or defence lawyers. Bindman says the decision to rehear the case is “a great triumph and achievement”.

You might think Bindman would be dancing around his office, but he seems to have limited his celebrations to sporting a light blue suit, yellow shirt and violently patterned tie. In studied and slow speech, he explains: “I have had other things to do. It hasn’t been a continuous anxiety over the past 25 years.”

Bindman is universally known as one of the most, if not the most, highly regarded civil liberties lawyers in the country. Yet this principled – and to many inspirational – man reveals very little about himself, restricting his forthright public statements to issues legal and political.

Everything Bindman says is guarded and precise. I am surprised when he offers some unsolicited personal information: “I do a lot of academic work at University College.” It is not really the type of personal information I was after.

He does say that he is a “very relaxed person”, adding: “I do a lot of different things because I am very economical with my time.” Perhaps a lifetime of fighting often unpopular causes, combined with his considerable journalistic experience, has left Bindman with an innate distrust of the media.

His client list reads like a Who’s Who of left-wing causes and he is open about his support for the Government. He is vice-chairman of the Society of Labour Lawyers, but he objects strongly to the tag of “left-wing lawyer”.

“I don’t see how political affiliation is at all relevant. One never hears City lawyers being called right-leaning lawyers. I regard myself as a strictly professional lawyer.”

Bindman is eager to steer the conversation back to Pinochet. Interestingly, he is critical of Blair on this issue. Although he backs the principle of an “ethical foreign policy”, he laughs at the idea that Pinochet was brought to justice because of the change of government. The current Attorney General, like his Tory predecessors, rejected Amnesty’s calls to arrest Pinochet on arrival in Britain.

He believes the ruling has wide-ranging and worldwide repercussions as it means heads of state may one day have to answer for their actions. Those who disagree with the ruling are plain wrong, he says. Bindman says he has no worries that there is ample evidence to convict Pinochet for crimes post-1988.

He will not be drawn on which former dictator might be next in the dock – in fact he is clearly bored rigid by that particular question – but by way of example he does say: “It should be going through Milosevic’s mind that if he ever leaves Yugoslavia there’s no question that he will be arrested.”

The Hanratty case seems to be an important but less universally significant affair for Bindman, who agrees with the general view that the CCRC will be most effective when given the proper resources to clear the ever increasing backlog.

Of course, one crusade is easily replaced by another and Labour’s plans for legal aid reform have not gone down at all well – “the Conservatives never planned anything so drastic,” he says.

Bindman set up the first legal aid practice in Kentish Town in London and sees the reforms as greatly diminishing the number of firms available to the poor. He says: “Replacing legal aid with conditional fee agreements is a false economy. What I find most deplorable is that insurance companies and corporations will be under no restrictions in what they can spend.”

He adds that the ability of firms like Bindman & Partners to run 50 per cent on legal aid while undertaking very low paid civil liberties work – Pinochet was done pro bono – could be hampered by the reforms.

In private, Bindman may well be celebrating wildly over his recent successes. In public he remains, as ever, determinedly low-key – perhaps he just does not want to be seen to be resting on his laurels.

Whatever the reason, it seems that nothing – not even a double victory of the highest calibre – can make him lift his guard, even for a moment.
Geoffrey Bindman
Senior partner
Bindman & Partners