Law: Liberty's freedom fighter

Civil rights solicitor John Wadham is to take on the Government next week.
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The Independent Culture
FEW SOLICITORS have their phones tapped, but John Wadham could well be an exception. "Some time ago, we were under surveillance by MI5," he says. "I'm certain that we aren't under surveillance generally - maybe only when we have acted for spies." So when Wadham started to act for the former MI5 officer David Shayler in August, he wrote to the Home Secretary for some reassurance. "It is possible - in theory - that if he thought that this was a national security issue, he could listen to my calls."

Next week, Shayler goes to court in Paris to fight the extradition. He was arrested just hours before an interview with the BBC's Frost on Sunday, where he was to discuss a range of sensitive issues including an alleged Government plot to assassinate Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, which the Government has denied. If the extradition goes ahead, Shayler could face two years' imprisonment under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act. "His only fault," argues Wadham, "was to disclose malpractice and abuse within MI5. There was never any intention to damage national security."

This type of job is by no means new to Wadham. Another client is Richard Tomlinson, a former MI6 man who was sacked and then denied an industrial tribunal hearing on national security grounds. And Wadham acted in spy- related matters even before joining Liberty, at the civil rights firm BM Birnberg. "I seem to have a specialism," he smiles, sitting in a blue tweed jacket and unpolished Doctor Martens.

Liberty is funded by charities, trusts and donations, including substantial amounts from lawyers who also offer their services pro bono. No cash is wasted on luxuries: Liberty's South London premises, standing next to an Indian restaurant, a bookie's and an ugly council estate - sorely need repainting. Wadham has no secretary - just an unpaid research assistant. And his desk is broken. "We are always on the edge of making ends meet," he says.

"I like to fight for the underdog. That stems from my upbringing. My parents were working class, not rich. It wasn't a left-wing household, but I suppose I felt some unfairness."

Over the years, he has been a reliable voice of dissent for the media on a wide range of contentious issues - anti-terrorist legislation, Zero Tolerance, beggars. He makes statements "to puncture a dangerous consensus," he explains. "For example, when you see the vilification of sex offenders, after they have served their sentence, and you see the vigilante groups, there has to be someone saying, `Hang on, is this the right approach?'"

Sometimes, inevitably, he is obliged to choose between conflicting "rights". When religious groups campaigned recently for an extended blasphemy law covering more than just Christianity, Wadham argued that "reducing discrimination is laudable... but increasing restrictions on freedom of speech is not the way to go about it". But who decides what line Liberty should take? "A lot of what we say is only our opinion on whether something will infringe the European Convention on Human Rights," he says. Policy is decided by the executive committee.

After obtaining degrees in sociology from the LSE and Surrey University, Wadham worked in law centres in south-west London, dealing mostly with housing and social security law, then qualified as a solicitor. Applying to Birnberg's for a job, he was interviewed by, among others, Paul Boateng (now a Government minister). He did his articles with Benedict Birnberg himself and with Gareth Peirce.

Two years after joining Liberty (then the National Council of Civil Liberties), he took over the legal department. Since passing that on to become director in 1995, he has retained a close interest. It is currently staffed by five full-time lawyers and an army of volunteers - the legal department is as busy as ever. The lawyers are fighting for a retrial for the M25 Three (sentenced to life imprisonment in 1990); and are challenging the armed forces' ban on gay men and lesbians, and the Government's denial of certain widows' tax allowances to widowers.

One notable case which Wadham handled himself went on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights last year. He represented three men jailed for taking part in consensual sado-masochistic acts of genital torture. In the event, they lost.

"When I came to Liberty," recalls Wadham, "I was shocked by how little people in general know about [the European Convention on Human Rights], how easy it was to become an expert." But now that is changing as the Government intends to incorporate the convention into UK law, which itself is not as straightforward as may originally have been thought. "Labour policy in 1992 was to oppose incorporation," he explains, "but partly because of the work of people here, they have changed their minds." He is working with ministers and civil servants on the implications of incorporation. "Within a month of Labour being elected, I had been into the Home Office more times in those four weeks than ever in the years before."

Indeed, under Wadham, Liberty has won increased respect, even from interest groups such as the police who might have dismissed it before. Liberty has launched several cases claiming assault and wrongful arrest, but now the Association of Chief Police Officers is working alongside to prepare officers for the forthcoming legislation. Similarly, Wadham is working with the Lord Chancellor's Department on training for the judiciary.

"I am very pleased to be able to sit down with ministers and civil servants to talk about human rights and still have the freedom to criticise the Government on Newsnight. I don't think they have a problem with that." On the contrary, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has written the foreword to a book Wadham is writing. And it has even been suggested that a Labour Government anxious about being regarded as "soft" on crime might positively welcome the odd criticism from human rights groups. Is Wadham complicit in this? "We aren't devious. We're just doing our best."