Forget pinstripes and port. Michael Mansfield QC, our most celebrated - and most famously PC - defence lawyer favours tracksuit and mountain bike. Seldom out of the headlines, his next big case will, unusually, find him acting for the prosecution.
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When Michael Mansfield QC had his wig stolen, he was gratified to learn that the symbol of his professional dignity could well turn up as a prop in a strip joint. According to police in Manchester, where the theft took place, "hot" legal wigs, worn in new and inventive ways, are a popular feature of erotic burlesque. Indeed, hinted the officer delicately, given where it had been, learned Counsel might not wish to have the article back. Mansfield, however, wanted it back very much. He finds the ceremonial horsehair indispensable for cleaning his shoes.

The incident says as much about our view of the judiciary as it does about Michael Mansfield. For the man in the street, the Brit-ish legal system is the stuff of pantomime, a heritage industry of obscure 17th-century forms and Byzantine tricksiness. We have a kind of camp enjoyment of the "Merrie England" aspects of the Bar - the bowing, the blustering, the general wiggery-pokery. For Mansfield (and, presumably, for the man in the dock), the spectacle is less entertaining. "When I first came to the Bar, the British legal system seemed to me to be anachronistic, elitist and basically unfair," says Mansfield. "I couldn't understand how such a system was even designed to get at the truth. Given the prejudices coming from the police, the prosecution and from the bench itself, it never occurred to me that what you were really getting was justice."

After almost three decades in the profession, Britain's most celebrated defence barrister has not revised his opinion. If anything, Mansfield's early suspicions have hardened to the conviction that many of our legal processes are designed specifically to thwart the interests of justice and truth. His book, Presumed Guilty (1993), drove a whole coach-and-horses cavalcade through the criminal justice system and, his personal track record at the Bar eloquently supports his argument.

In the past decade, Mansfield has acted for the defence in almost every "miscarriage of justice" case to hit the headlines: Judith Ward, the Birmingham Six, the Broadwater Farm Three, the Cardiff Three - multiple "mistakes" adding up to a galling indictment of police and court procedure. Last month, Mansfield acted for Kevin Callan, the lorry driver who was freed by the Court of Appeal after teaching himself neuro-surgery in jail to prove that he could not have killed his girlfriend's daughter; and successfully brought the charge of manslaughter in a private prosecution on behalf of the families of the 1989 Marchioness disaster victims. He is currently preparing a private prosecution on behalf of the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager killed in an alleged racist attack. (A public prosecution was thrown out by the DPP because of insufficient evidence.) If the Lawrence family are successful in their suit, it will be the first conviction under private prosecution for murder since 1865.

Wheeling around Tooks Court (the setting for the lawyers' chambers in Dickens's Bleak House) on his Muddy Fox mountain bike, Mansfield, 53, looks more like an Outward Bound instructor than the Scourge of Chancery Lane. Two parched and pinstriped worthies who, from their weary-tortoise expressions could well be tying up loose ends on Jarndyce v Jarndyce, look askance at Mansfield's shiny pink trackpants, fluorescent trainers and flapping polo shirt. Damn it all, the man is wearing a necklace. Inside the Tooks Court Chambers, the atmosphere is no less relaxed. Mugs of tea are produced by a smiling young man. (A female junior making tea, you rather sense, would not go down so well here.) Mansfield is famously pol- itically correct, although it is fair to say that he was thoroughly well- intentioned and sensitive to social issues long before PC was invented. Generous with time and advice to a whole raft of right-on causes, he is pro-animal rights, anti-nuclear, pro-ecology, pro-legalisation of cannabis. All his six children have attended local state schools and he is glad that the teachers "put Blunkett on the spot at the party conference". He met his second wife, the film-maker Yvette Vanson, on the picket line at Orgreave. Oh yes, and he once wrote a children's book about a little black boy who saved a whale. Right now, he confides, he would love to be up a tree with the motorway protestors, but he doesn't think he'll have the time in the next few weeks.

"I suppose I see it all as indivisible," he explains. "Once you have a particular standpoint, which is, I suppose, humanitarian, libertarian, compassion or whatever, it becomes very easy - for me at least - to identify with causes that are part of that indivisibility. Animals, environment, ecology, whatever's happening to ice floes, whales, pigs, old-age pensioners, it's all part of the same process now, which is about a global denuding of resources. It's all inter-connected and it's all to do with the growth of international capitalism; fewer and fewer getting more and more, the classic exemplification being the utility executives who are getting more in one day than their staff are getting in a year. This isn't about jealousy, this is about basic fairness. That's what I get excited about - any situation where I feel people have been denied basic fairness."

Few people post-1968 can speak persuasively about the growth of international capitalism, but Mansfield could recite the Desiderata from a tea-towel and you'd come away convinced by his unclouded conviction. His conversation is low and rapid, his slightly sorrowful gaze fixed steadily on some fairer world. (Even in court, he never eyeballs the witness.)

His sentences come by the yard. He gathers up ideas with both hands and moulds them into evocative, freeform structures, rather than the tight, empirical arguments you might expect from a lawyer. His manner is at all times modest, without ever slipping into diffidence. Only a man supremely at ease with himself would display a gonk in Chambers.

Most of Mansfield's arguments are angled to jolt the British out of the jingoistic delusion that, however imperfect the system, "You're Better Off In Britain". Miscarriages of justice, he argues, are not just careless oversights, but evidence of systemic corruption. Britain, he points out, has a record second only to Turkey for rulings in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. "It's not just the individual cases which are in breach, the actual legislation that they're passing is in complete contravention of the European Convention. Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Act is a prime example. I believe that all the public order provisions brought in under the Act are in breach of the articles of the Convention, and anybody arrested and convicted under those provisions should go to the European Court with their case. Howard always said that the Act wasn't intended to curtail the right to peaceful protest, but we now have a situation in Brightlingsea where animal rights protestors have been sent a letter from the chief of police saying `Thou shalt not protest, but if you do, you're only allowed one protest a month and you have to write to us in advance telling us who you are and what you're going to do. We'll determine if you are allowed to do it, and then if you go on a demonstration where there are any breaches of our directions, each one of you will be held responsible for everyone there.'

"I think de Klerk's apartheid regime would have been proud of that at the time of the conspiracy trials and pass laws in South Africa," says Mansfield, with no hint of dramatic hyperbole. "That's the kind of democracy we're ending up with."

Mansfield inherits his anti-Establishment fervour from his mother. For most of his early childhood in Finchley, north London, Mum, the law-abiding wife of a Tory-voting railway controller, kept her radicalism under wraps. Then, when Michael was nine or ten, she was done for misparking the family's Ford Anglia outside Sainsbury's.

"The case got front-page treatment," remembers Mansfield, "because Mum absolutely maintained that she had parked correctly and she was so religious and honest that there was no way she would ever have lied about it. She fought the case, representing herself in court, and half-way through the hearing she did a Perry Mason - she produced a surprise witness. You see, my father, who was disabled in the first war, had been sitting in the car all along, but the police hadn't clocked him. So my father was dragged out of the car again on one leg to testify and Mum won the case hands down. The local papers were full of it - finchley housewife takes on police!" Thereafter, it was like the politicisation of the middle classes through traffic offences. Mum completely turned against the men in blue and refused to believe that any of them ever told the truth, and she used to make rude remarks - my Mum making rude remarks! - every time we went past a police officer. Well, for me, this was just great. My father thought it was all very odd for my mother to get so excited about police offences, but I thought, `Well, she's got a point here, something's gone badly wrong.'"

Thus awakened, the Mansfield conscience was further fired by a popular American tele-vision series of the Fifties called The Defenders. "It was all about a father-and-son legal team who took on a different social issue every week," he recalls. "The really interesting thing about The Defenders is that they hardly ever won their cases, but you felt at the end of the programme that they'd meant so much to the individual they represented. I said to my father, `That's what I want to do', and he said, `You're mad. I haven't got any contacts in the law and I haven't a clue how to get you into it.' But I just felt this magnetism, and one day I walked into the Old Bailey to watch one of the first cases about a man shooting a policeman. It was being prosecuted by a very senior member of the Bar and I remember sitting there and thinking, `I could do this. In fact, I could do this better.' I mean, this chap kept asking things like `Does the bullet match the hole?' Things he should have known. Things the Defenders would certainly have known. [Fine-combing the evidence is one of Mansfield's own trademarks.] The whole thing just seemed so unprofessional, somehow."

A philosophy degree from Keele, where "the extent of poverty was so great, it was writ large over the earth", rounded off Mansfield's sentimental education. He took his law exams, failed, repeated, taught at a polytechnic, invented and patented a variation on the "spork" (the indispensable spoon- cum-fork of Sixties supper parties) and finally arrived at the Bar in 1967.

"All the prejudices I suspected of existing were indeed there," he says. "People weren't committed to cases; it was just a job. They couldn't understand why I was remotely interested in - or even remembered - the case I'd done last week. They all met and played golf together, there was this tight feeling, like you were being monitored all the time."

Mansfield is now safely past the age when golf begins to exert its mystic pull on the professional man. At the top of his career, he remains something of an outsider at the Bar and is constantly scouting for new ways of opening up the profession. For starters, he would abolish the "cliquey and ridiculous" Chambers system and the tradition of private pupils. His own set at Tooks Court is run on scrupulously egalitarian lines, and he has a reputation for professional generosity to younger colleagues.

"The treatment of female pupils at the Bar is an issue very much in vogue right now," says Anesta Weekes, an ex-trainee pupil of Mansfield's and now a barrister. "I have to say that even in the early Eighties, before it became a public issue, I had no difficulties at all about Michael's attitude, as a very successful male at the Bar, to me, a young black female. When I felt insecure about my chances, he was unfailingly supportive and encouraging."

Not everyone, however, is charmed by the Robin Hood syndrome. Mansfield's ubiquitous telly appearances - popping up on Panorama one day to argue against the release of Lee Clegg, submitting, with lethal grace, to Kilroy's badgering the next - are considered "vulgarly promiscuous" by some in the profession. (There was even a television series - Blind Justice - based on Mansfield himself, though he didn't think it was a patch on The Defenders.) Nor is his soaring status as media heart-throb for women of a pinkish disposition likely to win him friends at the Wig and Pen.

"Mr Mansfield is entirely worthy of admiration for his intellectual and advocacy qualities, but not, I think, of adulation," cautions Alex Carlisle QC and Liberal Democrat MP. "For a lawyer as successful as he, I think adulation would be an unnecessary luxury."

Also, in a milieu where politics are generally considered a private matter, at least until the port is passed, Mansfield's constantly flaunted left- wing principles are considered by many to be unseemly. Principles combined with financial success are particularly galling. Mansfield earns very much less than lawyers with substantial private practices, he has turned down offers beyond the dreams of avarice from California, but he's still not on his uppers.

"I think that many members of the Bar feel that he has a political agenda, or at least that the principles that motivate him are more socialist than libertarian," says Carlisle. "Whichever he is, if he wishes he can enjoy a life of dreadful affluence. For me, as a politician and a lawyer, I see it as absolutely essential to shed all political baggage the moment I go into the legal arena. If you have a professional, political agenda, then you should go into politics. It's something of a disappointment that Mansfield has never taken the political plunge, because it would have been interesting to see how he fared."

In fact, Labour invited Mansfield to stand for a safe seat in 1992. He refused. And it is even less likely that he will stand in the next election. "Mainstream politics for me is pretty well dead," he explains. "We've now got two parties which are so similar they're interchangeable, and such a centrist system of Cabinet government that, whichever party gets in, they'll almost certainly turn their back on the electorate. Therefore, the ballot becomes meaningless. In a way, what I do now is like having a constituency that doesn't depend on a ballot box. There's no vested interest in it for me, no money, no power, nothing except the knowledge that I can provide a voice where there isn't one."

Mansfield's belief that he is acting on a kind of people's mandate is absolutely central to his professional philosophy. But what is a left- wing humanitarian to make of a democracy where, "You, the Jury" straw polls repeatedly show a populace baying for medals for Lee Clegg and the return of capital punishment?

"This is all about who's got control of the sources of information," he argues. "Basically, short of the Guardian and the Independent, the press is dominated by Murdoch or Trafalgar House or whatever, and everybody knows that they are centre-to-right-wing. But people aren't stupid; if you were able to overcome that barrier and get genuine information on major issues through to Dorset villages or whatever, I hope you would see a different result."

For the first and only time in his whole fluent exposition, Mansfield looks like he might be winging it, as if his fingers might be crossed under the table.

"People aren't stupid," he repeats, more in the manner of a mantra than an assertion. "I do believe that you can persuade people by showing them the whole truth. That is my job. If I didn't have that hope, then I'd give up tomorrow."