Law: Making a case for the underdog

This Thursday, 27 Wormwood Scrubs prison officers will be in court, accused of assaulting prisoners. Representing many of the plaintiffs will be Daniel Machover, a human-rights lawyer determined to fight for the oppressed
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The Independent Culture
Every morning on his way to school, Daniel Machover would pass by the imposing Victorian frontage of Wormwood Scrubs prison, the defining image of the English jail system. Outdoor PE lessons at Burlington Danes, his state school in the shadow of the Scrubs perimeter wall, would sometimes be abruptly cancelled, he remembers, because angry prisoners were engaged in rooftop protests.

Twenty years later, Mr Machover has been the central figure in bringing to light the appalling conditions and brutal culture in what was once our flagship penal institution.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham - who was alerted to allegations of brutality in the Scrubs by a dossier from Mr Machover - carried out an inspection of the jail in March and was horrified by what he found.

The chief inspector reported on the "evil" and "rottenness" within the prison and said some of the staff had a "destructive, uncooperative, self-seeking attitude". Blaming prison chiefs for allowing such a situation to develop, he recommended that they consider closure or privatisation of the jail.

Later this week, 27 officers from the prison will appear before West London magistrates accused of assaulting prisoners. The charges, which followed a long investigation by the Metropolitan Police, are all strenuously denied.

Most of the prisoners who have complained are clients of Mr Machover, 36, who is now a civil liberties lawyer practising in north London.

"When I was at school I was just aware of Wormwood Scrubs being this huge, decrepit Victorian building. Refurbishment has made it better now but then it looked in an appalling state. I had never been inside at that time but the impression that I got was that it was an imposing, run-down place," he said.

"I began doing some run-of-the-mill prisoner's rights work in 1997 and at the end of that year we got wind of something very much more serious going on at the prison."

Mr Machover's career as a human rights lawyer was shaped in part by the influence of politically-conscious parents who were forced into exile from Israel because of their determination to speak up for downpressed Palestinians.

Close observations of his parents' treatment at the hands of the Israeli authorities - including the strip-searching of his mother - heightened Machover's awareness of the potential for those in uniform to abuse their powers. The Machover family felt they had to leave Israel in 1968, when Daniel was five.

"My parents were anti-Zionist Israelis and at that time it was beyond the pale for Israelis to be ideologically opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. They were sympathetic to the Palestinians. For anyone to be saying that, just after the Six Day War, was going completely against the national tide."

Mr Machover embraced his parents' anti-Zionist views and as a law graduate in Southampton became involved with the Palestinian Society and later set up an organisation called Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights. After graduation he found work with the north London firm of Cecil Altman & Co, where he cut his teeth by helping out on a legal campaign by prostitute Lindi St Clair to avoid being taxed on her earnings.

Mr Machover's deeper involvement in human rights work developed after he came into contact with John Wadham, director of the civil rights group, Liberty. Mr Wadham first approached him to work on what proved to be an unsuccessful challenge to the right under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to hold a suspect without recourse to a court. But greater success came with his involvement in co-writing Liberty's brief when the shooting by British soldiers of three Irish terrorism suspects in Gibraltar in 1988 went before the European Court of Human Rights.

He said: "I would like to think that our work was a factor in the finely balanced judgment, by a majority of one, that Britain was at fault in the shooting of the Gibraltar Three."

The case, Mr Machover believes, turned on the failings of the British security forces to establish that a suspected car-bomb used by the unarmed Irish suspects did not contain explosives - thus creating a life-or-death situation which need not have existed. "The state was negligent because it failed to recognise that those [suspects] had the right to life. It placed the soldiers in the position where they found they had to shoot," he said. He believes, the British authorities never fully took on board the findings of the court on the "right to life" of criminal suspects who are confronted by armed officers.

Mr Machover is currently representing the family of Harry Stanley, an unemployed painter and decorator who was shot dead yards from his front door in east London by police marksmen as he walked home from a pub in September.

Mr Stanley, who was carrying a repaired wooden table leg, had been reported to police as a suspected gunman. His killing is the subject of an investigation being supervised by the independent Police Complaints Authority.

Working with Liberty, Mr Machover has helped to force the Government's secret listening post, GCHQ, to take on employees of non-British parentage and was involved in persuading the Electoral Registration Officer to give voting rights to the homeless.

Three years ago, Mr Machover was invited to set up a civil department at London solicitors Hickman & Rose, previously known as a criminal defence firm. He said: "We are completely focused on getting people remedies for problems they have experienced in the criminal justice system, whether they are bad decisions in magistrates courts, assault cases against the police or malicious prosecutions."

Despite the efforts of modernising senior management in the Police and Prison services, Mr Machover believes that enlightened messages are not getting through to rank and file officers across the prison service. He said the code of silence surrounding abuse of prisoners by uniformed colleagues would never be broken unless it was made culturally unacceptable, by a sustained campaign involving the type of sting operations that have been used to fight police corruption.

He said: "What we keep being told by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Martin Narey, the head of the Prison Service, is that the vast majority of police and prison officers are good. I find that difficult to accept when it is clear that a lot of them know of abuse and do not do anything about it. I don't think you can say that just because the vast majority of officers do not abuse their powers that they are good officers; to my mind they are complicit in allowing others to get away with this."