Review: Memoirs of a radical lawyer

FRFI 212 December 2009 / January 2010

Michael Mansfield

ISBN 978 0 7478 7864 9. Bloomsbury, London 2009. 496pp, £20

The English legal system, like all legal systems, is an instrument of class rule. Its system of precedents, cases, statutes, its rituals and its personnel reflect this. While the English constitution – unwritten – celebrates the ‘rule of law’, maintaining that all British subjects are governed by the same law equally and impartially, this is only a fiction that the ruling class maintains so that it can bask in the glow of its own righteousness while disciplining the inferior classes. A short visit to any magistrates’ or crown court will show you the realities. Most judges and barristers are toffs. A high proportion of politicians are lawyers. The criminal law is designed to control the working class, the civil law to defend property rights and corporate interests. Working class burglars are imprisoned; banks that specialise in daylight robbery are rewarded. Ordinary folk who deliberately, or even accidentally, cheat the benefit system of a few pounds are vilified; MPs who fiddle their expenses to the tune of thousands get a pension. It is remarkable, then, that among this morass of privilege and double-dealing there are a few decent lawyers. Michael Mansfield QC is one of them.

There is an interesting description in Mansfield’s Memoirs of his education and admission to the Bar. Education for English barristers was for centuries conducted through Inns of Court requiring pupil barristers to eat a large number of meals and train on the job at a set of Chambers with no pay. Only the offspring of the ruling class could either understand the process or afford it. It was only when the Law Society (governing solicitors) instituted exams and proper training, that the Bar Council thought it should train barristers or get left behind. Much of the nonsense and lack of funding remains and consequently barristers are overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds. Mansfield came from a petit bourgeois family but was educated at private school.  Nonetheless, somehow, somewhere, he learned to care about justice, fairness and human rights.

Mansfield’s Memoirs of his career – he was called to the Bar in 1967 – reads like a catalogue of the most famous, most controversial and difficult cases of the last 40 years. From the Angry Brigade in the 1970s to the recent murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, and much else besides, Mansfield has applied his remarkable legal abilities for the benefit of ordinary people oppressed by the law. In 1973 he represented Irish Republicans Marian and Dolores Price who were charged with bombings in London (which included the Old Bailey and Mansfield’s own car parked outside) at a time when it was almost impossible to find legal representation for anyone accused of IRA involvement. Mansfield led the defence team for the Orgreave riot trial during the miners’ strike 1984-5, and defended prisoners who rose up against the system at Risley (1989) and Strangeways (1990). Most of the major political issues of this era are dealt with.

That is not to say that Mansfield has rid himself of illusions in the system. He thinks that institutional racism may have decreased as a result of the Macpherson Inquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence. He has illusions in the effectiveness of international law to right wrongs and protect human rights. It must be galling to have watched former colleagues like Vera Baird QC (Solicitor General) and Keir Starmer QC (Director of Public Prosecutions) accept the Labour government’s shilling to batter working class and oppressed people. It must be infuriating to know that their government has launched a devastating attack on legal aid, at the same time creating hundreds of new criminal laws and devising new systems, like ASBOs, to deprive working class people of access to justice. To give him his due, Mike Mansfield has stuck to his principles and that makes him stand out and makes his book worth reading. There is also, incidentally, a very good Further Reading section!

Carol Brickley


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