Michael Mansfield: 'Nowadays there’s one rule for the rich, and another for the poor'

He has represented everyone from the Lawrence family to the Hillsborough victims. But, he tells Emily Dugan, cuts to legal aid mean he can now only exist as a ‘virtual lawyer’

Michael Mansfield’s CV reads like a dossier of the biggest injustices of the past three decades. The barrister has acted for families caught up in the Hillsborough disaster, Bloody Sunday and the Birmingham Six case, and the deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Stephen Lawrence.

But this week – even as the QC was in court representing the relatives of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police in Tottenham prompted the London riots of 2011 – it emerged that these high-profile cases had not been enough to keep his chambers in business. Tooks Chambers, which he set up in 1984, announced its closure on Monday, saying it was “a direct result of government policies on legal aid”.

In a robust statement on its website, Tooks said the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s policies were “cumulatively devastating the provision of legal services and threatening the rule of law”.

At 71, it would be understandable if Mr Mansfield took the chance to hang up his wig and gown for good, but instead he is already planning the launch of a new kind of virtual chambers.

In an interview with The Independent, he said: “Even at my age I’m not walking away from this, because that’s what [the Government] want. What they’re really trying to do is undermine the independence of the bar and its ability to challenge government decisions.

“I’m not willing to leave a younger generation who are just coming to the bar now with very little hope for the future. I’ve got to see if I can make a business for them to continue their work. I’m looking at a different model that doesn’t depend on a huge building and huge staff, but is an electronic hub.”

While Tooks had 55 members, including five QCs, the new chambers-without-chambers will begin with just 15 barristers and be called Mansfield Chambers. Its namesake says the traditional set-up of an expensive building with extensive administrative staff would no longer work for barristers – particularly those whose cases predominantly come from legal aid.

“Most barristers are having to pay over 20 per cent of their income for the building they’re in, and the staffing that you need for a set-up that’s going to bring in an income is high. With costs rising in London it’s impossible,” he said. “The whole idea of barristers trying to run a business as well as their cases is ridiculous and you can’t do it.”

Instead he envisages barristers connected electronically, with a small physical “hub” in each city they are working in where they can meet people and network. There was talk that this new chambers could start within a fortnight, but Mr Mansfield says that is optimistic, only committing to a desire that it is “up and running in the new year”.

Tooks’ closure comes after the Coalition announced in April that it would carve £220m off the £1bn-a-year criminal legal aid bill. Mr Grayling also wants to cut the fees paid to lawyers, reducing payments by 30 per cent in the highest-cost cases that last more than 90 days.

Mr Mansfield believes these cuts will come at a high price for justice. He said: “The public is already beginning to see how difficult it will be to get advice and representation. The Government talks big about rights but the average member of the public is just trying to work out how they will survive another day. What we’ve reached is a situation where you’ve got one rule for the rich and another for the poor.”

He says he guessed in the spring that Tooks would have to close, “when it was clear that the Justice Secretary was particularly intransigent and there wasn’t going to be any backdown and it was going to get worse.”

He recalls: “The trend towards cuts had started two years ago but people were hoping there might be reconsideration because of the representations from the Bar Council and the Law Commission.” The reconsiderations never came. “At that point,” he says, “We realised it was going to be unsustainable.”

Tooks will cease operations next month, before being dissolved formally on 27 December. Mr Mansfield believes its closure is likely to be one of many. He said: “There were closures before us and there are at least three other chambers I know of that are in equal trouble and are likely to go in the next few months.”

Tooks Chambers was formed in 1984 in response to the miners’ strike. Mr Mansfield recalls: “Hundreds of miners were being arrested and charged and a group of us just moved up to Yorkshire and lived up there. We represented them with great success in the Magistrates Court and the Crown Court and then there were civil cases against the police. It was a great example of what was possible from the lowest level of the court to the highest.”

Now the picture is very different. Many lawyers believe the changes to legal aid are likely to result in fewer public inquiries and judicial reviews of the kind Mr Mansfield is famous for. It is an analysis he shares. “For cases such as judicial reviews, legal aid just won’t be available or will be significantly reduced,” he said.

“The idea that you’d get a Lawrence Inquiry now is remote. There’s a real reluctance now to embark upon inquiries of the kind we’ve had. Politicians use the excuse that they’re too expensive, but it’s really because they uncover truths that governments don’t want to be uncovered. Now they don’t want to have them in the same way; or if they do, they don’t want lawyers involved.”

Case history: Working for the innocent

Stephen Lawrence

A year after the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, Mansfield led a private prosecution against five suspects. Charges were dropped against two and the remaining three, including Gary Dobson and David Norris, were acquitted due to unreliable evidence. Dobson and Norris were eventually found guilty of the crime last year.


Mansfield is representing 71 of the families who lost relatives in the 1989 disaster at an inquest which begins next March. Among other things, it will look at the police’s role in the deaths of 96 people at the FA Cup semi-final.

Bloody Sunday

Three of the families whose relatives were killed in the massacre were represented by Mansfield at an inquiry which concluded in 2010 that British paratroopers “lost control” in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing innocent civilians in 1972.

Miners’ strike

Three of the miners accused of attacking police during the 1984 strikes in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, were represented by Mansfield. All 95 who were prosecuted for riot and unlawful assembly were acquitted.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own