Law: Defence against racism

Will the Lawrence murder inquiry report have implications for lawyers seeking to take private prosecutions?
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The Independent Culture
Would there ever have been a public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence if the lawyers for his family had not started a private prosecution against the suspects?

The question is exercising the legal profession ahead of the publication of the inquiry report, which is expected to contain criticisms of the lawyers for the Lawrence family. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing," said one lawyer. "In many respects, the Lawrence family lawyers have been real heroes - they have had to go up against the legal system, the police and the Government. The family and the lawyers had to force the case back on to the agenda, when it could just have been another statistic."

The Independent revealed last month that the Lawrence family's barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, and the solicitor Imran Khan are likely to come under criticism in their handling of the private prosecution of the suspects. The report of the inquiry, which was chaired by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, is due to be delivered to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, next week.

Benedict Birnberg, a leading civil rights solicitor, who acted in the Derek Bentley case, says it is easy to be critical in retrospect. "One can understand that the family felt that they ought to try every possible avenue and, in retrospect again, they were not to know at that stage that the result may be that the suspects can never be prosecuted. Who was to know at that stage that there would be a public inquiry into the whole matter?" Another barrister, who has acted for both the prosecution and the defence, says: "There are certainly problems in taking on a major private prosecution because it is a very different approach, especially if you have acted mainly as a defence lawyer - but this was a unique situation and one can understand why they went down that route. But, as in many cases, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say that it would have been advisable to get a second opinion."

In this particular and unique case, the situation now is that the Metropolitan Police are reported as investigating several new leads on the death of the teenager almost six years after he was stabbed. But unless there is completely new evidence that is incontrovertible - such as a third party saying that he saw certain persons committing the crime - the charges cannot be resurrected. "Sad as it is," says the QC, "the suspects have effectively been acquitted."

For others, criticism of the legal team is really a side issue to the main problems that the inquiry has already highlighted. The Metropolitan Police has been forced to make changes in its recruitment policies and Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve has taken charge of the murder squad.

No part of the criminal justice system has been untouched by the inquiry. The Society of Black Lawyers, which made submissions to the inquiry in London and Manchester, has also proposed training on race issues for the Crown Prosecution Service and at all levels of the education system.

The society's chairman, Peter Herbert, says that the inquiry has shown that racial stereotypes have no place in a criminal investigation.

And according to a leader in the field, Tony Edwards, "For criminal lawyers, there aren't massive lessons because colour has not been a problem in terms of lawyers giving better service to one group, but there is a message being sent about policing and the nature of investigations

"There is no short-term solution, but this has concentrated everyone's minds on dealing with deep-seated racism - at all stages of investigation, the prosecution and the judicial stage."

The legal profession has already speculated on the prospects of the Lawrence family getting justice for the murder of Stephen. Some argue that even if there had been a civil case, it is unlikely that there would have been any pressure for the suspects to attend, and it could have been a damp squib. What the private prosecution did was force and then highlight the issue.

And far from any possible criticism in the report inhibiting the way defence lawyers may act in future, many lawyers consider that, unless the criticism is justified, the fact is that they have tended to set the agenda rather than merely follow it.

What is likely to have a larger impact on how defence lawyers work is the Government's proposals on legal aid in its Access to Justice Bill that is currently going through Parliament, and the possibility of public defenders who may perceive that they run the risk of losing their job if they go too far.

As Brian Barker QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, comments: "The system should cater for a wide variety of lawyers and that is the importance of having independent lawyers. If you have adequately funded independent solicitors and barristers, there is more chance of getting a just result - for both sides."

Other lawyers have suggested further routes for the Lawrence case. One option, following a recent case in the European Court of Human Rights, is to mount a legal challenge against the police because of their inadequate investigation of the case originally. But, as the lawyers acknowledge, this will not necessarily result in what the Lawrence family want - the guilty parties being brought to justice.

Vicki Chapman, head of policy at the Legal Action Group, says: "If there are any lessons to be learnt, it's that there is clearly a need to have a police force that has a representative mix, and a need for better training on race issues. It is crucial that you create a police force where ethnic minority recruits want to stay; the statistics have shown for some time that a large number are leaving because of discrimination in the force itself."

These are hardly new or startling revelations, as Chapman adds: "It is 17 years since the Scarman report was published. If we had learnt the lessons from that report, we wouldn't have had to have the Lawrence inquiry."