Michael Mansfield QC

Job title
Head of Chambers, Mansfield Chambers

Mansfield Chambers is a new chambers whose publicly funded practitioners defend the civil and human rights of individuals and groups of people

What have been some of the highlights of your career?
The cases that have had national interest and importance, primarily those that have taken on the system and brought about seismic change. One example is the Stephen Lawrence case. The Macpherson Report made 77 recommendations for change in the Met. These changes were far reaching. And what Mrs Lawrence, now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, has done is to show that ordinary individuals could ask all the right questions, and get a lot of them answered. She also periodically summoned the political leaders and police to meetings to ask them what they had done – in effect to hold them to account.

Another example is the Marchioness campaigner Eileen Dallaglio, as she did the same thing in taking on the State. As a result of her persistency with the Thames Safety enquiry, you can see the result. There are now designated life saving craft, highlighting of bridges and life jackets all along the river. The nature of traffic on the river was reconsidered. These are cases that brought about change; something I find heartening and heart warming about citizens prepared to stand up for what they believe in.

What do you credit your success to?
Two things I suppose. Firstly, I have a strong sense of justice driven by anger. I get upset when vulnerable people don’t get justice, whether inside or outside the system. Then, secondly, channelling that anger into collaborative working. Hence establishing Tooks Chambers in 1984. One of the first cases was the miners’ strike, where hopefully we made a difference. I think we achieved acquittals for nearly everyone we represented.

Who have been some of your most memorable clients, and why?
It is difficult to pick them out really. Arthur Scargill and Mohamed Al-Fayed were certainly two high profile clients. But one that does actually stick out now I’m thinking about it is Alfie Meadows. He was hit on the head during a demonstration against university fees. He had no prior convictions, was involved in a peaceful protest, and really he was making a point for all of us – higher education should be for all, not just those who can afford it. He was acquitted of violent disorder two years after he suffered life-threatening injuries.

Why did you want to become a barrister?
I was a child of television. When my parents got one, I became addicted. There was a US show called The Defenders, I haven’t seen it since but it was about a father and son. They took on amazing cases that all had a point about socio-political issues that lay behind every case. It was well filmed and well performed and I got drawn in and thought this is what I want to do. They mostly didn’t win their cases but clients felt liberated and represented, both literally and metaphorically. I felt there were few things you could do in life that provided a concrete end to it.

What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
The advice I was given at the beginning of my career was as a barrister you will be compared to a surgeon. Treat each case at arm’s length so you do not get too involved. That was the advice and it was the best advice because I’ve done the opposite. This was an indication of how the profession had become a little remote. It was the best advice because it caused me to think that was not how I wanted to do it. I made time to get to know the people I was representing. Things have changed now, but that is how it was when I started out. Facts and feelings of the case I felt were key.

What advice would you give to anyone at the Junior Bar reading this?
My current concern has been the same since I started to practise – the need to have an overarching perspective. There is no use coming to the Bar unless you have an independent courageous spirit and you are committed to the principles of practice – i.e. this is what you really want to do. Don’t come to the Bar because you believe it will provide you with a living. Come to the Bar because you have an inner commitment to pursuing the ideals of the area in which you wish to practice. If you are concerned by the destruction of the environment and its resources – fight it on a legal front. You need to have a sense of purpose, otherwise forget it.

How do you relax?
I have always believed it is extremely important to have a whole space in your life that is different to your working life; because if not, you will frazzle. You need the space to recharge different stimuli. For me that is through music, theatre, film, and playing the drums (badly). Above all that, I have six children, who are all grown up now, so I have always had a house full of children and they weren’t interested in what Dad did every day. I have benefitted hugely from the fact that all of my children had a sense of entertainment. I believe we have to engage in another generation, something I have done as a barrister in getting the younger generation to engage in the communities they live.

Michael Mansfield QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah

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