The Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer, By Michael Mansfield

The Birmingham Six, Diana and Dodi... Michael Mansfield lets his cases speak for themselves
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The Independent Culture

It has been suggested that he has rather enjoyed basking in the limelight all these years. A sort of Michael Moore figure of the legal circuit, filled with his own hubris, who occasionally moonlights on the 6 O'Clock News as the great public defender of the age. Anyone you care to mention who has had a grievance against the state or big business, or who has appealed successfully against a conviction – the Birmingham Six, Barry George (acquitted on appeal of the murder of Jill Dando), the families of the Marchioness disaster, the family of Stephen Lawrence, Arthur Scargill, and most recently Mohammed Fayed, at the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed – have been represented by Michael Mansfield.

But to Mansfield's credit, there's not much vanity or swagger in this exhaustively chronicled memoir of a 40-year career at the Bar. It is rather the burning desire to overturn injustice, a love of the underdog, and reassuringly, a love of the law, not his remarkable career, that is most striking.

His reputation could easily have been shredded in 1973, when Mansfield agreed to represent the Price sisters. None of his colleagues wanted to take the case. Even his mother believed it "unthinkable" that he was representing Irish terrorists. Since then he has built a matchless reputation for taking the establishment to task, and asking uncomfortable questions about how the authorities run things.

Mansfield's radicalism emanates principally from being a bleeding-heart liberal, but he also has a singular approach to practising law. "Barristers are supposed to be like surgeons, remaining impartial, not identifying with the client. That is what I was told when I started, and that is what I have always tried to ignore. Although emotional responses can be very difficult to handle, I believe that to deny them in your working life is as ridiculous as denying them in your personal one." And emotional and enduringly loyal to his clients, he is.

He keeps a photo of Angela Cannings (the woman who was given a life sentence for shaking her two children to death), and her newborn son in his wigs box. Mansfield was able to overturn the conviction by convincing the Court of Appeal that the evidence of the paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow was unreliable. He had no hesitation in employing Breda Power (the daughter of Bill Power, one of the Birmingham Six) as his PA, after her father was freed. It is these personal reminiscences that propel the book. In fact, it is difficult to think of anyone else outside government whose career has coincided with so many high-profile incidents and milestones.

Mansfield thinks it highly plausible that Jill Dando was murdered in revenge for the Nato bombing of Belgrade in 1999, which killed a Serbian TV personality. And then there's Diana and Dodi; if it were anyone else, you might suspect it had more to do with selling books than a genuinely held belief, but Mansfield is reliably trenchant when he says: "I have always believed that whatever caused the crash, it was not an accident."

This unqualified acceptance of his clients' version of events, the liking for alternative, grand theories of conspiracy, can be gratingly "right on". Too often we are told of "the state within a state", that "big brother is watching", of Mansfield's belief in a causal link between systematic subterfuge and miscarriage of justice. It has been a brilliant, mostly fascinating career, though. The chapters on the fallibility of forensic science and the limits of DNA evidence (Mansfield calls for a National Institute of Forensic Science to lay down standards for experts who give evidence), could mean that, in time, this might become an important book, too.