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.

Hillsborough

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.

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