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 wisdom 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).
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 and 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 well 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 from 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 them.
“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 else.