Skip to Content

Books

One to admire

The English Bar is no longer immune to the celebrity culture.

9 September 2009

12:00 AM

9 September 2009

12:00 AM

Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer Michael Mansfield

Bloomsbury, pp.496, 20

The English Bar is no longer immune to the celebrity culture. There are lawyers’ equivalents to Hello! magazine and the Oscars ceremony; lists of the 100 most, top ten, five to follow, proliferate. But peer and public recognition do not always coincide. To that rule Michael (or more usually Mike) Mansfield is a notable exception. He is indisputably the most high- profile barrister of his generation, both within and beyond the profession, and for that reason alone his memoirs, published to celebrate what he claims to be his retirement from practice, were always likely to be of interest.

Expectations are amply fulfilled. This is essentially a fascinating and passionate record of the author’s major cases in courts, inquests and public inquiries, whose context will be as familiar to the general reader as to the lawyer, and which concerned or raised issues beyond the narrowly legal.


The roll call includes the Angry Brigade, the Birmingham Six, the miners charged with public-order offences after the strike of 1984, Barry George (accused of the murder of Jill Dando), the Marchioness disaster, the Strangeways riots, the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and the inquest into the shooting of Jean de Menezes.

Mansfield was not destined to be a lawyer, still less a radical one, by heredity, upbringing or education. He came from a middle-class family of conservative views, was educated at Highgate, a public school where he was an ornament of the Cadet Force, and Keele (he failed admission to Peterhouse), and was influenced in his choice of career by his fascination with that mid-Fifties American television series, The Defenders, and by his mother’s success in defeating a charge for a parking offence.

What does this book suggest were the ingredients of his successes? Utter fearlessness in the face of hostile tribunals, a way with juries — whose role, he believes, should be enhanced, not, as recent legislation has contrived, diminished — extraordinary stamina, a naturally sceptical and questioning mind (he has a first-class degree in philosophy) and an obvious fascination with science; he might have been an inventor, and many of his triumphs stemmed from his ability to test expert evidence, be it of DNA, fingerprints, graphology or statistics, exposing with uncomfortable frequency miscarriages of justice.

Most interesting are his views as to the functions of a barrister. The orthodox position is that a barrister should be detached from the client (insulated by a solicitor), act as his client’s trained mouthpiece, unaffected by belief in, still less necessary alignment with, his client’s case — a neutral, skilled professional, prepared to argue any case. Mansfield’s position could not be more different. He considers it essential to understand his clients and will travel from Palestine to Serbia for that purpose. While expressly not condoning acts of violence in pursuit of political ends, he evinces sympathetic understanding of what prompted them. For him, an indefatigable campaigner outside the courts, the boundary between cases and causes is blurred. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and does not conceal the fact that it is red tinged with green. Whether he would obey the Bar’s cab-rank rule and represent a member of the BNP is, as he points out, a moot point. The chances of his receiving instructions from such quarters can be discounted as entirely theoretical. He comes across as an idealist with illusions.

The nature of our respective practices meant that I encountered Mansfield only rarely in the courts. But I did have to try to persuade one High Court that the coroner’s refusal of his application to obtain evidence from the Queen at the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed was irrational — a fence too far. (Mansfield himself is wholly unpersuaded that these tragic deaths were the product of accident, and indeed interprets the jury’s verdict as consistent with his views.)

Mansfield has never sought, and rarely received, the plaudits of the legal establishment. But this varicose-veined vegetarian — both of which aspects he is at pains to explain — is the kind, if not the only kind, of lawyer, which any functioning legal system requires.


Show comments
Close