Whether defending the BBC against blasphemy charges or holding the police to account over DNA records, Liberty legal director James Welch has his hands full. By Katy Dowell
Liberty’s three-strong legal team is housed in the civil liberties and human rights charity’s backstreet offices in London Bridge.
The dark, windowless room where we meet is a far cry from the elegant House of Lords, where the team often finds itself arguing against Whitehall’s key policies. But Liberty’s offices are indicative of the legal team’s generally understated demeanour.
Legal director James Welch chuckles at the prospect of the uphill struggle he faces daily, and admits: “It’s not easy.” But he clearly feels the struggle is worth it, adding: “It’s a fantastic job.”
And Welch’s passion for protecting civil liberties is clearly infectious. “You have to appreciate that we’re dealing with some quite interesting issues,” he enthuses. “Quite often we’re looking at philosophical and moral balances.”
Indeed, the human rights group is usually working on several test cases at any one time in an attempt to push back the closing boundaries of UK human rights law.
“All our test cases are intended to be focused on Liberty’s core campaigns,” says Welch’s number two, legal officer Anna Fairclough.
Liberty has five key campaign areas: terrorism; the individual’s right to privacy; police powers; rights of asylum seekers; and the establishment of a culture of rights. These key issues can be interpreted to cover almost every issue affecting our key rights today. Welch says the in-house legal team divides work up organically. “We work very closely together and we work on the areas we are interested in,” he explains.
For example, Fairclough is currently working with the third member of Liberty’s legal team, Alex Gask, to try to force the Government to launch a judicial review of the handling of the July 2004 riot at the Harmondsworth Detention Centre in west London.
The Harmondsworth centre houses asylum seekers who are being deported from the UK. Liberty’s main concern is about the treatment of detainees, with reports of racial taunting by staff and of detainees being locked up for 48 hours in the immediate aftermath of the riot.
To get through its workload, Liberty’s legal team is reliant on a team of volunteer trainees. “Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Freshfields trainees come and work for us on three-monthly rota,” Fairclough says. “The Herbert Smith trainee is here for six months.”
The trainees, who are supervised by the in-house team, usually assist with matters raised by the charity’s legal helpline – which the trainees staff – and a weekly walk-in legal clinic.
Fairclough says the Liberty scheme provides trainees with invaluable hands-on experience, including the possibility of helping to present cases to the House of Lords.
“It gives them a completely different perspective on the law,” she believes. “They get exposure to working on cases that go to the House of Lords and access to a completely different type of client.”
“They also get to see a lot more of the case go through,” adds Welch. He says Liberty’s cases tend to go through at a much faster pace and, consequently, trainees get a much broader and in-depth range of experiences.
Liberty’s range of clients is huge. People from all walks of life have received legal support from the charity, from asylum seekers to BBC director-general Mark Thompson.
In November last year, for example, Fairclough represented Liberty in a blasphemy case brought against the BBC. Religious group Christian Voice went to court in a bid to get Thompson and Jonathan Thoday, the producer of Jerry Springer – The Opera, prosecuted for the common law offence of blasphemous libel.
Fairclough uses the case to demonstrate two key points: first, that both parties do not have to agree to Liberty participating (Christian Voice was opposed); and second, that Liberty is not always on the side of the smaller party.
Acting as lead counsel, Fairclough successfully argued a point that is at the very core of Liberty’s values – that free speech rights must protect sacred, profane and secular language alike.
Although prepared to challenge the law, Fairclough and Welch clearly have a strong regard for it. Using test cases to broaden the scope of the law has worked in Liberty’s favour and means it is able to get involved in cases which could otherwise slip by undetected.
This year Liberty will again be in the media spotlight when it challenges the police’s right to keep DNA records of individuals who have not been charged with a crime.
“Our position is that government shouldn’t hold information on people at all,” says Fairclough. “Any information they do hold should be justified and there should be safeguards to stop it being abused. That is not happening.”
Liberty will also continue to question whether police have the right to restrict where protests can take place. Welch recalls a case he worked on in July 2007 in which a company had attempted to invoke the Protection from Harrassment Act to stop the public protesting about its methods. This year, he says, “the right to protest will be a priority”.
Name: James Welch
Title: Legal director
Reporting to: Liberty director Shami Charkrabarti
Number of employees: 23
Legal capability: Three
Legal spend: £360,000
Main law firms (pro bono): Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Derringer, Herbert Smith
James Welch’s CV
Education: 1979-83: Degree in Modern Languages, University of Leeds 1986-88: CPE and Law Society Finals, Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic (now University of Northumbria)
Work history: 1988-2000: Trainee solicitor, assistant and then partner, Alexander & Partners
2000-present: Legal director, Liberty