Fox to the Rescue
Michael Mansfield QC is a bike-riding, drum-playing lawyer who
has earned the title of Britain’s most formidable defence
barrister. His fight for justice has just won
him two more awards.
He is also, we’re delighted to say, a valued trustee and
patron of Viva!
By Tony Wardle
British justice – the
best in the world! During the past decade,
a series of body blows has knocked the stuffing out of that boast.
Directing many of the punches was an impressive-looking barrister
with greying hair and an appetite for work. The hits came from miscarriage
of justice cases and they thudded home one after another – Birmingham
Six, Judith Ward, Tottenham Three, Carl Bridgewater, Eddie Browning
M50. They shook the legal establishment to the core. One of Michael’s
most recent cases – the five-year-long search for justice of
the Stephen Lawrence family – has rocked the whole establishment.
“Mansfield has played a significant part in one of the most
important cases of the year, a case that has sent a shudder through
the criminal justice system and – some would argue – British
society as a whole. The Lawrence case became a fight to put on
record that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally
racist’. Mansfield played no small part in getting that phrase
written into the Macpherson enquiry report and setting off shock
waves through the police, the political structures and the whole
criminal justice system that will reverberate
for a long time to come.”
That was just part of the eulogy from The Lawyer which, in its
Fifth Annual Awards this June, nominated Michael Mansfield barrister
of the year. He made the double when the Ethnic Multicultural Media
Awards picked him as Personality of the Year. He
can add these accolades to his
four honorary law degrees and his appointment as honorary Fellow
at the University of Kent.
So how do you get to the top of the legal tree? The conventional
is to play the game – go to a good public school, have right-wing
political or legal connections, don’t be controversial and
prosecute as well as defend. It is also vital to belong to a traditionally-minded
set of chambers. Having marched over these nostrums with the delicacy
of a squaddie on parade, Michael has still risen to the tip of
the legal pinnacle.
He studied philosophy at Keele University and on leaving designed
cutlery – well, what else do you do with a philosophy degree?
Then two events triggered his desire to become a lawyer. His mother
was a Tory party worker and the whole family’s faith in justice
was shaken when a policeman lied in court about her parking offence.
(Retribution has been exacted many times over by her son, whose
speciality is forcing imaginative coppers to confront their shortcomings).
wife, Yvette, and son Freddy
But the real decider was an American TV drama series called The
Defenders. A father and son team, they protected the interests
of the disadvantaged, championed the innocent and fought injustice.
They didn’t always win their cases but it was the process
which was important – the exposing of societies inequities.
Michael wanted to be a defender – and he is. The best!
It would be great to say that vegetarianism was responsible for
all his successes but it wouldn’t be true.
His vegetarian views, though, are intertwined with all his others
they make up a complex mix of a man. He is a carer – he cares
about people, animals, the environment and he
cares quite ardently about having a good time.
It was The Animals Film by Victor Shonfeld, shown on Channel Four
in 1982 that caused him to include animals in his list of concerns.
“No one was in the house and I sat and watched it on my
own. There was no one I could share my horror with and about two-thirds
of the way through I had to switch it off – I couldn’t
take any more. I gave up meat for about 18 months but then fell
into the trap that so many people do. I was quite ill and thought
it was because I’d given up meat – so I started eating
it again. It was two or three years before I finally kicked it.”
We’ve all heard that irritating accusation – ’you
care more about animals than people!’ Here is a man who has
bound the two inextricably together – human rights and animal
rights. So how does he answer that dig?
“People who violate one set of rights tend to do them on
all fronts – they violate the environment, people, animals
and now they want control over life itself. All these issues have
to be seen together and if you fail to do that, you play into their
hands because their aim is to divide and rule.
“Both literally and metaphorically, what you empty into
a river at one point ends up somewhere else. It’s about the
interrelationship of all things and you can’t simply cherry
pick the bits which you think are more important.”
Don’t try and pigeon hole Michael Mansfield. The media tries
it – trendy lefty, radical, self-righteous – and they
never get it right. His beliefs are too deep, too international
and too anarchistic to be that easily classified.
“As a species we have looked at the world and said that
nothing matters but us. All the glories and wonders are there to
be exploited and if they can’t be exploited then they count
for very little. We destroy without knowing the long-term effects
of what we’re doing. And when we do know we continue to destroy
because today is much more important than tomorrow. It’s
by today’s achievements, today’s profit margins, today’s
boasts that we’re judged.”
Michael hits the headlines with the regularity of a metronome.
as exposing miscarriages of justice,
he has criticised judges for being unrepresentative, secretive
and politically biased, he’s whipped the police into a frenzy
for – well, just about everything – and he’s
opposed politicians at every toss and turn. The establishment has
tried to disbar him and they’ve tried to seduce him with
talk of becoming a judge. His response was to write Presumed Guilty,
a book which ruthlessly demolishes the whole of the criminal justice
system (and which I was delighted to co-author).
He also wrote Whale Boy for his son Freddy – an illustrated
tale of the
first eco warrior – but that was just being a dad.
Of course you’d expect him to have views on genetic engineering. “The
government is desperately trying to defend GMOs while those responsible,
the multinational corporations, are taking over the globe. While
we have been able to research their economic power, their other
tentacles are not easily identified. Just who holds this enormous
power – power over life itself. The world’s resources
are being monopolised by a very few people.
“You can never tell what’s going to push the public’s
buttons, it seems quite arbitrary, but this issue has. They’re
telling government that they’re not interested in their arguments,
they don’t believe them and they’re voting with their
feet. Organic food is now taking off in a big way.
“It’s fascinating that Pinochet is still being held
for possible trial on gross human rights abuses, which he committed
with the support of British and US Governments under Thatcher and
Reagan. Right now there are other abuses being carried out in the
name of free trade – probably bigger and more damaging abuses.
And again the big and powerful, western states are using their
muscle in support and to bring into line anyone who tries to resist.”
On the surface, there is a contradiction in Michael’s working
life. He attacks the establishment and yet is part of it. In fact,
he realised early on that it was essential to distance himself
the traditions of the Bar as much as possible and so founded his
own chambers at 14 Tooks Court, just off London’s Chancery
Lane. There are now over 30 barristers operating from there, with
preference given to women and black lawyers. Many are vegetarian
and all are committed to a more egalitarian society.
It’s sometimes difficult to equate the jazz drummer, inventive
cook slaving over a hot Aga, generous wine pourer and abandoned
disco dancer with the terrifying monster he can be in court. Juries
love him, defendants worship him and bent coppers fear him. His
incredible short-term memory will light upon any inconsistency
in evidence with the speed of a panther. On one occasion, one of
his clerks entered a lift at the Old Bailey to find an ashen-faced
policeman slumped against the side. The clerk asked the man if
he was okay and got the answer: “Don’t worry about
me, I’ve just be Mansfielded.”
Michael Mansfield’s involvement with Viva! puts muscle into
his belief that both human and other animals are now considered
by the powerful as nothing more than commodities to be exploited
and that legitimate dissent has been emasculated.
“When care and concern for our own species is so grudgingly
withheld, what hope is there for other animals? If you choose to
exercise your right to protest, you will almost certainly be portrayed
as the violent one. New laws can be used to prevent even the most
peaceful demonstration and so collective action against the violence
of factory farming or fox hunting can now be prevented, allowing
the perpetrators of the real violence to continue unhindered.
“Viva! and organisations like it are now vital because democracy
has become so emasculated it doesn’t work. We represent the
genuine voice of people who want a better society, a fairer, more
compassionate society. The old institutions are failing us and
we have to create our own, new organisations”.
It is for this reason that Michael has recently helped found a
new group - the National Civil Rights Movement, inspired by the
work of Martin Luther King.
Perhaps the most recent and glaring example of failure on the
part of old institutions is the Stephen Lawrence murder. Five years
ago he was knifed to death and every avenue taken by his parents,
Doreen and Neville, to discover the how and why of their son’s
death was blocked. Only an unwavering refusal to give up and the
dogged persistence of their solicitor Imran Khan and Michael, eventually
produced an indictment of institutional racism.
His next big enquiry is even more
high profile and controversial. He is representing the families
of those killed in the Bloody Sunday massacre when British paratroopers
opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Derry, killing 14 of
“It is the single most important enquiry into the Irish
troubles ever held. The demonstrators weren’t IRA, they were
innocent people and they are owed an explanation and an apology.
“I was so impressed with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee
in South Africa, where no one was pleading for vengeance, they
simply wanted to know the truth. That’s what I hoped this
enquiry would be like – an acknowledgement of what happened
so that relatives can finally lay the memories to rest. I would
still like that to happen and if I am able to play even a minor
role in it I will be pleased.”
A north Londoner, product of Highgate School and now 58, Michael
has six children from two marriages – “I wasn’t
so environmentally aware then, all right?” His second wife
is television producer Yvette Vanson – also veggie and also
trying to save the world. Although he drives an Inspector Morse
Jaguar he is more likely to be seen weaving his way home from the
Old Bailey on a mountain bike.
Despite the disturbing nature of much of his work, Michael is
endlessly good humoured – something he seems to share with
undertakers. But he still wants to change the world:
“Make no mistake, becoming a vegetarian is an important
act. You’re no longer responsible for most of the daily cruelties
handed out to farm animals. You’re taking the first step
in allowing the planet to heal itself – but it’s much
more than that. It’s a political act and a clear expression
of a belief in a different way of doing things, a different kind
of world – a better world.”
With that he jumps on his Muddy Fox and rides off to defend someone