Phil Shiner: 'We torture people, yet no one admits it'

The lawyer who fights for victims of British foreign policy and military action says the stories of abuse at the hands of authority have only just begun. James Hanning meets Phil Shiner

Sunday 02 August 2009 00:00 BST

If Phil Shiner feels a bit smug, you can hardly blame him. The Birmingham human rights lawyer has had his share of being treated like an oddball obsessive, a do-gooding, unpatriotic trouble-maker. Now the causes he has taken up are vindicating him one by one. Obsessive he may be, but Shiner is a man to make politicians shake.

Last week the details of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war were unveiled. Shiner, predictably, is pawing the ground in anticipation. He has been asked by two groups, CND and Peace Rights, to represent them. And tomorrow he is back in court over allegations that British soldiers mutilated and murdered up to 20 civilians in the so-called "battle of Danny Boy" at a checkpoint near Basra in May 2004. This is by way of being a summer break from the inquiry into the death six years ago of Baha Mousa. In both cases, the official version was that near enough nothing untoward had happened. Eventually, thanks in good part to Shiner, a different version is coming out.

Shiner is the lawyer Iraqi prisoners and others come to with their allegations of British brutality. There are those in the military who will tell you that he thinks all soldiers are thugs, and that half of his clients are trying it on. Shiner says he is not interested in individual soldiers, but that he has spoken to many decent senior service people who have lamented the corrosive effect that the abusive treatment of soldiers has on discipline and morale more generally, quite apart from the wrongness of it. It is the structures, not individuals, that allow soldiers to misbehave, and a laxity of rules, such as the one that allowed the hooding of prisoners, as in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

"There are too many apologists out there, saying what trying times these are, what a difficult job they have to do and so on. Of course they do a difficult job, but you have a very, very low sense of ethical and legal standards. You have soldiers under huge pressure thousands of miles from home. Sooner or later you get them concluding that the people who have been allowed into their camps were responsible for the death of their mates." Which can only lead to trouble. He also says that army doctors are "hugely complicit" in the abuse of detainees.

But does he get people trying it on? "I have not accepted a single case that turned out to be a try-on," he says. He admits that he does get written to by frauds "quite regularly", but he says he has developed "an acute sense" of which ones are dodgy. "You can always tell them: they try to crowbar the words 'human rights' in as many times as they can, plus 'data protection', but you can always spot the nutters."

A word like "nutter" sounds strange coming from the serious-minded Shiner. His extraordinarily tenacious campaigns draw their strength from the Roman Catholic faith into which he was born 52 years ago. He attended Catholic schools and went to church weekly throughout his education, including during his law degree at Birmingham University. As a young man he was an assiduous runner, and completed a marathon in two hours and 30 minutes.

His initial wrong-righting began during a postgraduate degree at Warwick on ill-constructed council housing. (His lobbying got three entire council blocks renovated.) He then worked for Labour MP Frank Field in Birkenhead before moving on to environmental law. Ten years ago he set up his current practice, Public Interest Lawyers, a platform from which he has been named Human Rights Lawyer of the Year and Law Society Solicitor of the Year, although he is anxious that his "team" should share the credit.

He has three grown-up children from his first marriage and two young ones by his wife, Rachel, a gastroenterologist. He describes her as "phenomenal", not least for having done almost all the caring for their second child, Patrick, born four months ago just as Shiner was entering a spectacularly busy time at work. She has also had to put up with the faeces he gets sent in the post, mysterious powders and death threats. "She let me do it because she knows how important it is."

His comments might be designed to affront the British bulldog red-top press. Some have complained that very often his cases are funded by legal aid, which means the taxpayer picks up the tab. Yet, says Shiner, the rates his firm receives are generally the unsustainable "at risk" rates, and he has to fund the initial outlay. The most recent trip (of four) he arranged, for two of his solicitors to fly to Beirut, and for clients to fly from Iraq to meet them, including accommodation, visas and translators, set him back £35,000. "This is very much a public interest practice," he says. "I don't drive a car or have a big house. Anything that is left over is ploughed back into the firm. You won't find people driving round in fast cars on huge salaries with us. If you did, we wouldn't be able to afford the sort of work we do."

Last week came news of further legal wrangles over rendition and the role of the US in, supposedly, leading the British astray and involving itself in torture. "There are people making careers out of the idea that it's all the US – leading the public down the wrong path and going on about complicity and collusion. At the heart of the British nation," he says, "is still that horrible, exploitative, violent, colonial past. We've never got rid of it. So we go into Iraq and think 'these Iraqis, they're savages... forget about Iraq being the cradle of civilisation' As a nation, we don't really care."

This reading, he says, ignores cases like those of Baha Mousa and the Danny Boy massacre, and concentrates on rendition, Guantanamo and Pakistan. "We should look at the evidence of what our own people have been up to," he says. The broadsheet media doesn't want to know. "It's quite extraordinary to me that so much of the evidence in the Baha Mousa inquiry is going under the radar. Why this isn't headline stuff I just don't know. Yet what went on with the Pakistani authorities, or at Guantanamo ... that gets on the front page."

To illustrate his case, he talks me through two as yet unpublicised cases of what are – if true – quite hair-raising abuse. You may not want to believe it, but with his record, you wouldn't bet against it being true. "We torture people, yet no one seems to know."

Shiner will tell you he switches off by playing with his children, watching absurdist comedy and listening to music, but his vocation cannot be far from his thoughts.

One of his lines of attack at the Chilcot inquiry will be the Attorney General's change of view on the legality of the war. Shiner has edited a book on the subject and wrote a chapter himself on Lord Goldsmith's role in it. He remains as bemused as most people as to the explanation. "It looks to me as if he was leant on by the sofa cabinet because his first opinion wouldn't do. They said, 'You've got to sign up to the US line.' It is quite unprecedented for a lawyer to throw his own advice in the bin and start again, but that seems to be what happened."

So what does he think of his fellow Christian, Tony Blair, who led the nation to war? "I think Blair is the worst kind of believer," he says. "The idea that everything you do, as if it was God's calling ... that is the is the worst kind of American, evangelical notion of God that I oppose with everything I've got. It's the complete opposite of what I believe in. I have no idea how someone like Blair can square Christian belief with the invasion of Iraq. How many people injured, homes and properties destroyed? How he and Bush can live with themselves is quite beyond me."

His greatest inspiration, he says, is an annual religious retreat on the island of Iona with a friend. He went there a couple of months ago, and he is also allowing himself a week in Cornwall. But you can be sure that while the rest of us are lolling on the beach, Shiner will be topping up his Iona-inspired spiritual levels and mulling over brutality and the nature of personal culpability. Messrs Straw, Blair and Rumsfeld – look out. Phil Shiner has only just started.

A legal life: Defending the underdog, from Birmingham to Basra

25 December 1956 Born in Coventry, attends Bishop Ullathorne RC Comprehensive School.

1978 Studies law at the University of Birmingham.

1979 First job as articled clerk.

1982 Joins Small Heath Community Law Centre. Birmingham City Council introduces a policy of housing tenants behind in their rent in an old barracks. Shiner forces the council to reverse the policy, rehouse the tenants and demolish the block.

1985 Takes a masters degree at the University of Warwick.

1985 Sets up Birmingham Estates Project to fight on behalf of council tenants.

1990 Joins Barnardo's in Bradford as a community development worker.

1992 Back into the fray with the Birkenhead Resource Unit. Deals with people's problems with the authorities over housing, social security, education and the community charge.

1995 Partner at Tyndallwoods where he develops an environmental law department.

1999 Sets up Public Interest Lawyers.

Andrew Johnson

On the warpath

Phil Shiner has been asked by two groups to appear for them at the Iraq inquiry

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