A brief for good causes

Profile: Michael Mansfield: Patricia Wynn Davies meets the man who takes on the powerful in defence of the weak
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The Independent Online
When the crusading barrister Michael Mansfield wants to think, he climbs to the top floor of his house and pounds his drum kit. God knows, he deserves the relaxation.

Mansfield is a Queen's Counsel, which is not unusual, and an unreconstructed socialist, which is. His radicalism is focused on the legal system. He is the defender and champion of all known "unpopular" or leftist causes, a media pundit and a man noted for unchanging views for which he still stands up to be counted. If he were in America, he would be in the tradition of the great civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Asked where he stands in the political spectrum, he says he is off the end of the graph as the world shifts ever to the right, as Labour undergoes the metamorphosis from old to New, the notion of a culture based around rights is eclipsed, and a raft of law and order measures is more strenuously opposed by unelected judges than opposition MPs.

He is appearing on behalf of the late Patrick Molloy in the Bridgewater Three appeal, and during a break Mansfield reflected on the state we're in: "The shift to the right by both the two major parties has gone so far that the Liberal Democrats are now seen as the radical alternative." That doesn't mean he'll be emulating Vanessa Redgrave on 1 May (She has announced that she is voting Lib Dem). Mansfield will be voting in Tooting, in south London, for the Labour incumbent Tom Cox, who Mansfield rates highly - on a personal level. For Mansfield, that is light years away from supporting the New Labour party machine.

On the issue of New versus old Labour, 55-year-old Mansfield has had no problem sticking to his principles. Contrary to common belief, he had never been a member of the Labour Party, so he never had a party membership to relinquish. Just as he has never fully engaged with the establishment inside his own profession, political parties present him with a problem which is probably part of an anathema to groupism generally. "The moment you have territory, the moment you have power, a kind of corruption sets in," he says.

Mansfield is a highly politicised lawyer, however, ready to use the legal system and the platform it has given him to try to wreak change and right wrongs. This distinguishes him from the lawyer-politician; he is the complete obverse of Lord "Derry" Irvine, political eminence to Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and the party's Lord Chancellor-in-waiting.

One of a handful of like-minded advocates, Mansfield has pitted himself against the system in a succession of cases - the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, Tottenham Three to name but a few. All have helped fashion an outsider, set apart from the "clubbability" of the Bar. And yet, his war with the legal and political establishment did not prevent the Lord Chancellor's Department from offering Mansfield a part-time judicial appointment, the starting point for all judges, a few years ago. He says he considered it seriously for a long time before turning it down. He says this was not merely an anti-establishment gesture: "I might have taken the step if I'd felt I'd fulfilled the role that I have tried to play, which is to represent and articulate on behalf of groups that usually don't find ready representation."

As it is, what he is doing gives him a far more prominent platform, through his combative weekly appearances on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze, articles in the broadsheets and radical magazines like Red Pepper, and countless television interviews. Those are the avenues Mansfield uses to wage campaigns on police powers, the rights of suspects, sentencing and environmental issues.

He is not entirely incorruptible, however, for he has occasionally been caught changing his mind, He once declared to a journalist (this journalist in point of fact) that he would never contemplate joining the prestigious ranks of the QCs. The following year, 1989, he applied for "silk" and got it. While he is legendary for taking the kind of cases others would gladly avoid, the move up the hierarchy has nevertheless helped to ensure he earns an average of pounds 200,000 a year from a highly successful 95 per cent legal aid practice.

An issues-man, driven by conviction but capable of exhibiting a touch of the flash, he plays a straight legal bat in court. Even those barristers with no taste for his views acknowledge that Mansfield is good at what he does. Beyond the courtroom, the commitment to socialism, the underprivileged and disenfranchised, to public ownership, state education (twice married, he has six children, all state school educated) and civil liberties is quite undimmed.

He treasures his relationships with fellow-outsiders. Friends he admires include Arthur and Anne Scargill. Mansfield's Took's Court chambers have donated more than pounds 1,000 to the general election campaign of Helen Drummond, who is standing for Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, against Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary. Another close associate is the film-maker Ken Loach, with whom he campaigned against the scrapping of Clause IV. "I see Ken trying to do what I'm trying to do which is stay true to a principle; his is in celluloid and mine is in words. He hasn't allowed a sanguine or caustic view of human nature to prevail when he might begin to feel the weight of Hobbesian nature ... of there being no chance of getting through."

Can he say the same about himself? "Yes" comes the firm reply. "I feel it would be very easy for me to say, for example, in a Moral Maze sort of discussion on the existence of evil, that such a thing exists. I don't believe there is such a thing as evil. I believe everyone is capable of doing things that are disgusting, but that the same person is capable of doing something quite remarkable. Which of those two capacities comes to the fore will depend on a number of factors."

His commitment to speaking up for those with no voice, the present and future victims of the legal and political systems, seems an increasingly solitary mission, but he claims never to get disheartened. "No, no, and the reason is that people like Ken Loach and me are not a tiny minority. We may be tiny in terms of visibility, but there's a huge hinterland of support. People come up to me and say 'oh you're so-and-so, we saw you doing that, keep up the good work'."

THE Mansfield view of the world has its roots in a traditional Tory family in Finchley, north London - Margaret Thatcher's old seat. The family was sufficiently well-off and careful to send their son to a public school, Highgate, but the price was that his disabled father had to work long and unsocial hours as a railway controller.

His father's early and unexpected death from throat cancer left Mansfield, then aged 18, angry that the careful preparations of a dedicated breadwinner for a rainy day had been cut short so cruelly. The distress was compounded when he was rejected by Cambridge. After personally hammering on the door of the admissions tutor, he eventually secured a place to study philosophy at Keele University. It opened his eyes to the poverty of the Potteries.

But asked to name the most significant single influence on a career built on challenging police evidence, he records his mother's single-handed, and well-publicised fight against the local police over a disputed parking conviction. "It politicised her. It didn't stop her voting Conservative but it did cause her to ask very big questions about what was going on in the blue uniforms."

He retains deeply negative feelings about public schools. "Despite some very caring and sensitive teachers, which Highgate had, they breed a form of arrogance and elitism and conceit from which I suffered greatly at the beginning, and which some people might say I still do - a bit." He is correct; some people do.

But he has got guts, and generosity. Not many people, in the law and outside it, are prepared to work for nothing, as Mansfield has done in inquest hearings, most notably in the case of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, in death-row cases and others where litigants would otherwise go unrepresented for lack of funds.

Does this sure-footed, smooth-talking master of forensic detail ever come to grief? Like every other barrister he has had to cope with the disappointment of losing cases, but 18 months ago he was felled by the worst nightmare confronting a public figure when an extra-marital affair was given the treatment by the News of the World, causing much muttering around the Temple about the man who was supposed to be politically correct long before the term was invented.

He has never before spoken publicly about a deeply painful episode, but he says now that a large proportion of what was published was untrue. The affair was a fact, however. "It caused a great deal of distress and anxiety for which I am deeply sorry," he says. He has spent the last two years rebuilding the relationship with his second wife, Yvette Vanson (the mother of his sixth child), whom he met during the 1984 miners' strike when she was making a film about Orgreave and he defending miners in the courts.

Michael Mansfield now proposes to diversify. He is setting up a human rights centre in Brussels; he plans a death-row project which will engage London lawyers to assist in American murder cases; and he would like to become more involved in television and film. His first novel Inquest, to be published in the autumn, is to be adapted for cinema by the production company Working Title. He says modestly that he is not a brilliant writer; the point of the book is in the theme, which is based on his experience helping the victims of the Hillsborough and Marchioness disasters. A jumbo jet crashes over London and kills 500 people. Their relatives face political stonewalling which they eventually overcome with the help of a lawyer who has been politicised by events.

Just like him.