Interview: Michael Mansfield

Memoirs of a Radical Law Student: My Dinner with Michael Mansfield QC

Radical; vegetarian; socialist. These three words are rarely used in conjunction with lawyers, but these are the three that encapsulate Michael Mansfield QC. In a mystifying world, brim-full of traditions, wigs, and lots of Latin, you can imagine the excitement I felt when I was told that I would be having dinner with a Queen’s Counsel. And not just any QC, but the Johnny Depp of the legal world.

As an aspiring barrister with very few connections in the Bar, I was interested to unravel just how difficult it was for Mansfield to sneak a foot into Chambers, given that it was notoriously Oxbridge dominated at the time. Did he fit the established mould? After sipping for thought, he replied that it was “mesmerizingly steeped in formalities,” and he managed to trudge through “mostly with my eyes shut and holding my breath.” It is no secret that Mansfield is regarded as a radical now, but he revealed to me that even as he embarked upon his career 45 years ago, there were fears he was some sort of “’red under the bed.’” Clearly he was seen as unwelcome salt in a cup Twining’s Finest Tea, but his fundamental and inherent belief in human rights has since helped him shine through as ‘one of them’.

Ordering my dinner, I was self-conscious I had asked for meaty dishes for my starter and mains on ‘No Meat Week’ when the man sat next to me had equated meat production to genocide. Woops! However, Mansfield reassured me that he had taken no offence and the reason why he was a vegetarian was through watching ‘The Animals Film’ (1981), which unashamedly exposed the level of animal exploitation in commercial food industries. He outlined his moral objections to consuming meat, fundamentally that “we have no right to say that we’ll cultivate other forms of life” before tucking into this veg starter.

I wanted to know whether he agreed with Polly Higgins’ proposal to have ecocide classed as a ‘serious crime against the peace,’ after having seen the moot ecocide trial Mansfield participated in. His silvery tongue helped secure a ‘conviction’ of the Global Petroleum Company and Glamis Group. Without a pause he described ecocide as on par with genocide. Citing the example of the Tar Sands project, “the most environmentally damaging project in the world,” which breached personal and environmental rights he emphasised the need to consider “environmental desecrations”.

The summer riots alongside student protests regarding the tuition fee hike made me curious to discover how Mansfield thought the police could regain public trust. As someone who has openly rebuked the policing methods that were employed, what does he think has gone wrong so far, and what can be done about it? Mansfield lamented the unimplemented recommendations made by innumerable reports on responsive and responsible policing. He noted that following the Lawrence inquiry, Sir William Macpherson has, for example, published over 70 proposals. Mansfield succinctly noted, “the simple answer is that all police authorities should read the report,” and that there was also the need for an independent overseer – a British equivalent of a French Juge d’Instruction.

Although I am not a political person by nature, I had nevertheless heard of Fatmir Limaj, the Kosovan MP indicted for war crimes against Serbs and Albanians. When I discovered that Mansfield had defended him, claiming his job was to ‘defend the indefensible’ I wanted to pursue what he meant by that. He began by explaining that this citation had always been misconstrued. It does not mean ‘creating’ a defence where none exists, but instead that the right to a fair trial is protected. Indeed, he rightly said “you cannot strip someone of fundamental rights and freedoms purely because they are objectionable or unsavoury, convicted criminals, or even people who would themselves deny these rights to others.” It is not surprising that he won a Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award.

As the last spoonfuls of food were being eaten, and the prospect of returning to my room to dive into the wall of ‘invigorating’ reading loomed ever closer, I thought long and hard about my final question. It needed to count. Often I find myself procrastinating on Facebook, or laughing at the latest Meme, instead of doing the reading I should be doing to avoid the classic Oxford essay crisis. I wanted to know what advice he would give the barristers of tomorrow. His reply, simple but elegant. “Tenacity, passion and commitment.”

For those of you who want a bit of light, bed-time reading about the flesh and bones involved in the Diana Inquest, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Stephen Lawrence trial and much more, this extraordinary man’s book, ‘Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer’, is on sale in shops across Oxford.

-Barbara Bell