In the first instalment of a two-part article, the self-styled ‘radical lawyer’ talks to Catherine Baksi about his 50 years at the Bar, why the Grenfell Tower inquiry judge should ‘quietly stand down’ and his belief that one day Tony Blair will end up in the dock over Iraq.
The career of human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC has featured numerous landmark cases that chart the history of many of the major news stories of the last half-century – from his big break in 1972 representing the Angry Brigade, to representing the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, the families of Stephen Lawrence and Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as Barry George, Mohammed Fayed and, of course, the Hillsborough families.
Along the way he has published a number of books including his autobiography Memoirs of A Radical Lawyer, Presumed Guilty: the British Legal System Exposed and The Inquest, an e-book Grisham-style crime thriller. There have been personal and professional highs and lows, the most devastating being the death of his daughter Anna, who took her life two years ago.
Although he has attempted retirement a couple of times, it never really worked out. Now 75, the man dubbed by the hostile parts of media as ‘Moneybags Mansfield, the Champagne socialist’, shows no sign of quitting.
When the Hillsborough inquest ended last year, he says he thought it might be time to ‘make space for other people doing the work I do’. ‘But actually there aren’t a lot of people doing the work I do, and people said: “Don’t give up altogether’ and so I’ve stuck around.’
Sitting casually dressed in his chambers (Mansfield 1 Grey’s Inn Square) in front of a sketch of himself during the Birmingham Six retrial, by court artist Priscilla Coleman, he is relaxed, yet sparky and energetic, the years of fighting seemingly having done little to dull his passion for the fight. ‘I do love it,’ he says. ‘It keeps you mentally and physically fit, rather than being sedentary and pruning roses. I’m alive and kicking and ready to go.’
His current briefs include representing the largest group of survivors in the child abuse scandal, Shirley Oaks in Lambeth, who walked out of the main inquiry. With his Hillsborough partner, Birnberg Peirce’s MarciaWillis-Stewart, he is in negotiations over compensation with the London borough. He is doing a family matter – a first for him, and his case on behalf of a former Iraqi general seeking a private prosecution of Tony Blair, Jack Straw and former attorney general Peter Goldsmith over the decision to go to war with Iraq, recently took him to the High Court and may end up in the Supreme Court.
His next big thing could be representing some of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower blaze. Only the day after the devastating fire, survivors asked him to meet them and, he says, he would be happy to help them. ‘This is an atrocity in the centre of the city, in which hundreds have been killed or injured. Hillsborough was bad enough, but this is dire. It’s far more people than Hillsborough – they haven’t admitted it yet, but they will at some stage.’ Having been through it all before, his advice for the survivors is to come together and form one focal or umbrella group, so they can speak with one voice.
The authorities, he says, will ‘divide and rule if they can’ so it is important to be coordinated to face the forthcoming inquiry, inquests, and criminal and civil proceedings.
Moore-Bick should ‘quietly stand down’
Mansfield is concerned about the series of mistakes in the ‘badly managed and insensitive’ setting up of the public inquiry in the wake of the disaster. The silk reckons that the government has learned nothing from the mishandling of the child abuse inquiry which has had four chairs and, after four years and £35 million, has hardly heard any evidence.
The first mistake, he says, was the failure to involve any survivors in the choice of judge to lead the inquiry. ‘That’s not to say they determine it, but they should be sounded out about the choice before the appointment – it’s fairly basic.’
The second mistake followed the news, which broke late one evening, of the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick, when he went down to the site unannounced the following morning asking to speak to the survivors. ‘Fine, but do understand they are traumatised people, some of whom can hardly put one foot in front of another – and who break down when they talk.’
But the third mistake, is the one that Mansfield finds ‘unacceptable’ – Moore-Bick’s statement to them that his inquiry was not going to answer all the questions they have, indicating that its terms of reference had been decided behind closed doors in the Home Office or Ministry of Justice. Although Moore-Bick has been back to try to mend relations, Mansfield does not see it happening. ‘I think it’s difficult now for him. He doesn’t appear to have repaired bridges or communicated the kind of skills that are necessary for this inquiry. I think he should quietly stand down.’
While he does not know him personally or by reputation, Mansfield accepts that he was competent lawyer and judge, but says he is judging him on what he has done since being appointed. And his assessment is that he lacks an understanding of dealing with traumatised communities, and does not have a grip on the scope of the issues that need to be examined.
Blair in the dock?
Mansfield is representing General Abdul Wahed Shannan Al Rabat, whose attempt to bring a private prosecution of Blair and friends for the crime of aggression was thwarted by District Judge Snow’s refusal to issue a summons for the trio. He has challenged that decision in the High Court and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, and Lord Justice Ouseley are currently mulling it over. It is, he says, one of the most important cases he has done and he feels very strongly about it.
His argument is that although there is no statutory offence of aggression in English law – a proposition affirmed by the House of Lords in R v Jones & Others (2006) 2 All ER 74 (which concerned the Greenham Common protestors) – it was assimilated in to the common law, as evidenced by the prosecutions of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.
In 2003, Mansfield was one of a number of lawyers who set up Lawyers Against the War which petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate the war. Although the ICC had agreed an international definition of the crime of aggression, it was not ratified by the UK or the US.
‘Why won’t they agree it? As I told the court, politically they won’t agree it, because they’ll be in the dock,’ he says. ‘It means that if there’s another world war we’re not going to get the same accountability that we had at Nuremberg.’
Can Mansfield really see the day when Blair is in the dock charged with war crimes? ‘Yes, actually I can,’ he insists, highlighting the high level of public support for the scenario in the light of the Chilcot Report, which concluded that the basis for going to war was flawed.
‘The public is saying: how can this be? Blair engages the country in an illegal war of aggression as well as the commission of war crimes and he’s got away with it. He’s making money out of it. We got the truth with Chilcot. We now need accountability.’
Justice for Hillsborough came at the inquest
After Blair, his next most important case has been Hillsborough. Not only did they have to wait more than 25 years to get a fresh inquest, Mansfield says, they then had to endure the two-year hearing.
‘They shouldn’t have to wait this long or struggle this hard,’ he says; adding that, although it came late, the families got justice. ‘The findings of the jury at the end were so clear and formidable, because they answered every question very simply. They [the jury] wrote a judgment on the whole case. And it was a vindication for all the families sitting there.’
He continues: ‘In a sense justice occurred at that moment at the end of the inquest. It was quite remarkable. I’ve never had it before in a case in quite that way. There was this one moment, when they finished giving it – everyone stood up – the families and the jury. This coming together of an ordinary jury and ordinary people who’ve understood a situation, finally, I think that was the moment of truth. I think that’s justice.’
And now they want accountability and that – Mansfield says – comes with the prosecutions.
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