A fortnight before we meet for an exclusive, on-the-record interview, the first he will have given since the end of the controversial inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Michael Mansfield QC, counsel for Mohamed Al Fayed, asks me to join him in the pub.
It's an unusual request, but this is Michael Mansfield. This is the one of Britain's top barristers: the man who helped to free the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, the man who represented Michael Barrymore at the inquest into the death of Stuart Lubbock, the man who acted for the family of Stephen Lawrence, the man whose name is on nearly every headline-hogging court case of recent times, from posthumous appeals on behalf of the last man hanged in Britain, James Hanratty, to defending the man accused of Jill Dando's murder, Barry George. He does things his own way.
We meet as the Diana inquest is drawing to a close. In just a few days' time, the coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, will say that Mohamed Al Fayed's case has been "demonstrably without foundation", and will point out that "those representing [the Harrods owner] did not suggest to a number of the key players in the alleged conspiracy that they had played the part ascribed to them over the years and apparently still adhered to by their client". In other words, Mansfield knew that Al Fayed's persistent belief that the Duke of Edinburgh and Sir Robert Fellowes had conspired to kill Diana was without foundation.
The pub in question is a run-of-the-mill Farringdon boozer, round the corner from Tooks, Mansfield's chambers. Mansfield is unwell (he will later be diagnosed with bronchitis) and he's looking pretty bad, very tired and much older than his 66 years. Despite that, he does his best to be open and chatty. He is a giant of a man, very tall and broad, with a large belly, a huge head and vast hands and feet.
We talk about the interview over beer and crisps. What do I want to know? Do I realise there are certain things he can't talk about? He's been asked by every newspaper in the land to talk about the Diana and Dodi Fayed inquest: he can't and won't. That's fine, I say.
And before we do the interview proper, there will be another hoop to jump through. He suggests that I might like to see him in action at the Court of Appeal. He is arguing a point of law about forensics: specifically, ear prints. Disputing forensic science is a Mansfield trademark. "Forensic science is not immutable," he has said. "It's not written on tablets of stone, and the biggest mistake that anyone can make – public, expert or anyone else alike – is to believe that forensic science is somehow beyond reproach."
He is against a DNA database because of inevitable cases of mistaken identity. ("People say, 'Oh, if you're innocent you've got nothing to worry about.' And that's not the point at all.") He wants to prove in court that two different ears can make the same print, establishing that ear prints are not reliable forensic evidence.
I dutifully go to the Court of Appeal a week later. He's still looking bad. He walks heavily, as if he's in pain; his face sags and his skin has a greyish tinge. He makes only slow, ponderous movements. He leans heavily on the rostrum, his wig infinitesimally askew, looking as if he would quite like to keel over, like a great oak tree, and just be done with it. (Nevertheless, he wins his point in court.)
It's not surprising that he looks weary. The Diana inquest was not merely a slog, meaning 12- or 13-hour working days for Mansfield; it was years in the waiting. Mansfield's representation of Al Fayed, coupled with Lord Scott Baker's summing up, subsequently attracted nothing but bitchiness from the press and from his legal peers. "He's sort of a joke in legal circles for having taken the case," one barrister tells me. One newspaper said: "The great radical lawyer has been accused of selling out and abandoning the principles of a lifetime to lend his name and reputation to the billionaire businessman's dubious conspiracy theories."
Twelve days after his ear-related appearance at the Court of Appeal, we finally meet for lunch at the fashionable Smiths of Smithfield restaurant in the City. Mansfield is a vegetarian and Smiths of Smithfield is famous for its meat-heavy menu. Even though I research the menu and establish that the animal-free options look delicious, I check with his formidable and devoted PA, Camilla, that the restaurant will be acceptable. "They do have a good vegetarian menu, don't they?" she frets. "The boss doesn't care much for goat's cheese."
He's looking much better: his eyes are brighter, his footsteps less heavy and his mane of silver hair more buoyant. For such a large, grand man, who defends alleged murderers and terrorists, he has a sweet and gentle, almost fey, manner. He would make a marvellous drag queen. "This is deee-vine," he says of his asparagus soup. He wafts his hands in circles as he talks and has an endearing habit of slumping his face in one hand, drumming his sausage fingers on the table and rolling his eyes theatrically when trying to convey a sense of tedious legal procedure.
On the little finger of his right hand is a silver ring, and round his neck is a silver chain. He wears brown trousers, a mushroom-coloured corduroy jacket (which bears an orange pin in support of the Lawrence family) and a collarless linen shirt, into which he tucks his napkin. He is on a sort of diet; he's only eating two courses these days and he drinks only one glass of red wine.
Yes, the inquest was difficult, Mansfield admits. "I took my first few days off in 41 years after it. Well, they weren't really days off as I wasn't in the middle of anything, but the doctor told me I had bronchitis and that I had to lie down for two days. I listened to all these radio programmes I'd never listen to otherwise – like Woman's Hour. I love Radio 4. I've been waking up at 5am because of work and I can't get out of the habit. So yesterday I got up and turned on the radio and did paperwork while listening to a programme about the lobster-fishing industry in Padstow. It's not something that I'd normally listen to, but they got my attention by saying that they were cannibals and that they ate each other! And I thought, well, that's one way of controlling the population..."
The Diana inquest didn't differ a great deal from other long and complicated cases, such as the inquest into the death of Stephen Lawrence. The media attention wasn't unusual either; Mansfield's cases are usually high profile. But the heavy weight of the media's interest in the Diana inquest was, he says, hard to bear because it was so consistently negative.
"There was a more supportive media interest in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry," Mansfield says. "With this one, there was tremendous hostility across the board at the very existence of this inquest. The first thing that everyone has lost sight of is that the inquest had to happen. If a person dies an unnatural death abroad, it's the law that there is an inquest for the British family. Forget Mohamed for a moment; there would have had to be an inquest even if he didn't say a word.
"The second thing that everybody minds is the number of questions that were asked. Well, excuse me, but the questions that were asked and the witnesses that were called would have been asked and would have been called regardless of Mohamed. The scope of the inquest would have been determined by what Diana had been saying herself about her life; ie, she predicted that she might die in an accident of that kind and she made all sorts of assertions about who she thought might be responsible.
"Suppose I'd said to you today, 'I believe that I am going to be run down on my bicycle. I believe that there is someone out to get me, you know, for various things, and it's going to be done when I'm on my bicycle.' And then a year later I am run down on my bicycle. And my wife says, 'Well, it's not suicide and he's pretty careful on his bike,' and so on, and so you begin to ask questions.
"So all Mohamed did was to repeat these assertions and, therefore, a coroner would be bound to ask these questions. It wasn't a trial. People go round saying that it was a trial, but it isn't, it's an inquiry, and a lot of people don't seem to know the difference.
"You may not like the assertions or the beliefs that [a bereaved family] express, but they are entitled to have those beliefs and to have them examined by a coroner. All Mohamed was doing was to get the inquest to ask the questions that would normally be asked. For the inquest process to be so heavily criticised made it much more difficult, I think, for everyone participating in it."
Mansfield is clear, firm and reasonable as he talks, but he's obviously frustrated by it all. "Michael really likes to be liked," one former colleague tells me. Perhaps all the sniping hurts. Did he feel they were hostile to him personally? "No. It's not so much about me. They just thought, 'This should never happen.' It started just before the inquest opened last year. It's difficult to know whether it was an editorial decision or the whim of particular journalists, but they all started saying, 'Why are we bothering?' If it was a murder trial, no one would say it's a waste of time. I can't remember another case where the press has said that it shouldn't be happening. And of course, witnesses came in for criticism and all that. You can't conduct a judicial hearing in a climate where everyone's saying, 'Why are you bothering?'
"The bottom line is that I think the reason everyone was so hostile was because of animosity to Mohamed. It's because of his profile over the previous 10 years. The fact that he was a grieving father was pushed to one side. They didn't like him and they didn't want this inquest because they thought it was an inquest brought about by him. But it wasn't."
It wasn't just the media who had a go at Mansfield. Despite the principle that everyone deserves fair legal representation, the legal community appeared baffled by Mansfield's decision to take on the case. So why did he? Was it the money? (He is reported to have billed Al Fayed for £575 an hour. If he was working a 40-hour week, he would be earning £23,000 a week. That's before tax, of course.) Was it to thumb his nose at the Royals? Does he secretly just love attention – good or bad? Why, when Mohamed came knocking all those years ago, his pockets full of conspiracy theories, did Mansfield say yes?
"I've obviously thought about it," Mansfield says. "The simple answer is that he asked. The real answer is that if you look back over 40 years, I've done cases in which very uncomfortable questions have been asked.
"The first major one was the Angry Brigade [in 1972], who placed incendiary devices at the doors of people who they thought represented the Establishment at that time because there was an industrial relations Bill going through.
"Since then, pretty well every case I've taken on has excited the same sort of question, ie why is he doing this? From the Price sisters all the way through to the Lawrence inquiry, I've always been asking uncomfortable questions about how the authorities run things. I can't think of a period when I haven't done a case which hasn't raised serious questions about the authorities and the Establishment.
"Most people remember where they were when Diana died and remember what they thought. First, you don't believe it, and then you say, 'Why?' and close on the heels of 'Why?' was the fact that she herself had fears that she might die at the hands of the Establishment. And that's that, that's where I come in – 'There are some questions to be asked here.' And people might speculate that I did it for all sorts of other reasons, but really that's it. That's why. And I don't have any regrets about that."
Michael Mansfield was born in Finchley, north London, in 1941. His mother was a housewife, and his father, a disabled First World War veteran, worked on the railways. "My beginnings were really very ordinary," he insists. Most barristers these days aren't just bright, they are the very brightest; compared with the academic powerhouses who populate the modern Bar, Mansfield is something of a dunce. He had an interview at Peterhouse, Cambridge, to read history, but he performed badly and was turned down. Then he applied to a new university, Keele, and didn't get in there either. His father had just died of cancer, very suddenly, leaving his mother distraught; on top of the rejection from Keele, it all became too much for the young Mansfield. A friend of his had got into the same university with similar exam results and, overwhelmed by a sense of injustice, Mansfield packed a bag and caught a train to Keele to confront the admissions tutor.
"He was surprised to see me," Mansfield says, laughing at the memory. "But he said, 'OK, you'd better come in.' I explained the situation to him and he said, 'Right, I'm going to give you another interview now and if you pass, you're in.' So he asked me what I would do if I had £1m. And I said, 'I'd give half to my mother and use the rest to sail round the world, probably twice. I'd do that until the money ran out and I'd learn more than I would at your university.'" And the admissions tutor let him in.
He became politicised at university ("I woke up"). Mansfield describes himself as an anarchist, and he has never been a member of a political party.
After his awakening and his call to the Bar at Gray's Inn in 1967, his career became one incendiary civil-rights case after another, fighting for the underdog, kicking against miscarriages of justice, changing the face of civil-rights law, case by case, precedent by precedent. He tore apart the forensic evidence on which the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four were convicted. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, he led the chairman, Sir William Macpherson, to rule that the police were "institutionally racist". He secured the release of Angela Cannings, a mother who (like the late Sally Clark) was wrongly accused of shaking her baby to death.
At the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he represented families of anti-internment protesters shot dead by British soldiers in Londonderry more than 30 years earlier. Under Mansfield's cross-examination at the inquiry in 2002, a paratrooper admitted, for the first time, that he had shot dead one of the protesters. "The wife of the victim collapsed in court," Mansfield recalls. "She said she had waited 30 years to hear him say that, to know the truth about how her husband died. She said she didn't mind what happened after that, it was all she wanted to know."
Mansfield has long been considered one of the good guys. He voted for the Green Party candidate in last week's London mayoral election and regards the environment as the most important political issue on the agenda today. Perhaps that's why so many lefties feel let down by his decision to take Al Fayed's money. The right view his decision as inevitable – he's just the sort, they think, who'd give up his precious principles for money. The Daily Mail, for example, refers to him as "Moneybags" Mansfield, after rumours of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year earned in legal aid fees. It is true that he doesn't earn as much money as some, but neither does he give his services away; in 2006, he estimated his total annual earnings at about £300,000.
His personal life has prompted the odd raised eyebrow. His first marriage, to his university sweetheart, lasted 19 years and produced five children before ending in divorce. His second marriage was almost derailed in 1995 when his mistress, Debbie Sadler, went to the News of The World with the story that Mansfield had put her up in the same hotel as his wife, Yvette, and their young child, while the family were on holiday.
It strikes me as rather reprehensible until I actually meet Mansfield, and then, somehow, it seems to me more likely that he did it out of compassion, rather than sleaziness. He probably understood that the loneliest and most depressing time for the mistress of a married man is when the married man is on holiday with his wife. So he took Debbie with him.
But that's all ancient history now. Mansfield gave Debbie up and now lives blissfully free of publicised scandal with Yvette in a flat in Wandsworth. He has been talking of his retirement for years, but it really might, now, be close. "I don't want to die on the wire," he says, looking worried. He recalls seeing George Carman QC in a robing room shortly before his death, looking on his last legs.
Mansfield will soon represent the family of Jean Charles de Menezes at the inquest into his shooting by Metropolitan Police marksmen on the London Underground in 2005. After that, who knows? It might be time to settle down to writing his book – a sort of legal memoir – which is to be published by Bloomsbury.
"The book is going to be about why I've done what I have all these years," he says. "I have a feeling for the necessity to unravel the truth, and that's propelled me in all sorts of directions and not always in the same one. I've kept all the briefs I've had over the years.
"The book will be based on the questions I've applied to the Irish cases, the Islamic cases, to the families in trouble. I want to say, 'This is how you do it and this is why you do it. And if I can do it, you can do it.'"
On his gravestone he would like to have a fist, clenched in salute. "Just to say, yeah, you know – keep up the fight, don't give up. Don't roll over and take it. Be persistent, be patient. For most people, just staying alive and earning a living is enough of a struggle. Anything beyond that seems impossible."
Trial and error: four of Mansfield's victories...
Stephen Lawrence, 1999
The inquest into the racially motivated murder of Lawrence in 1993, and the subsequent inquiry into the Metropolitan Police's investigation of the murder (at which Mansfield represented the Lawrence family), led the chairman, Sir William Macpherson, to conclude that the police were "institutionally racist".
The Birmingham Six, 1991
Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, convicted in 1975, had their convictions ruled unsafe after the forensic evidence used to convict them was proved to be flawed.
The Guildford Four, 1989
Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson had their convictions for a pub bombing in Guildford overturned in 1989, 15 years after their arrest, after an officer found that notes of their "confessions" had been tampered with.
Angela Cannings, 2003
After being wrongly convicted of killing her seven-week-old son, Jason, in 1991 and her 18-week-old son, Matthew, in 2002, Angela Cannings was freed in 2003. Mansfield's appeal pointed to holes in the evidence of the controversial paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, who had been a key witness in the original prosecution.
...and one that got away
James Hanratty, 2002
The family of Hanratty, the last man in Britain to be hanged (in 1962), launched a posthumous appeal against his conviction 40 years later. Mansfield had the body exhumed to collect DNA and compared it with mucus found on the handkerchief wrapped around the murder weapon. Alas for the Hanratty family, it matched.