Passing the Brief: Martha Cover interviews Marcia Willis Stewart QC

Martha Cover interviews the celebrated civil rights lawyer Marcia Willis Stewart QC whose egalitarian spirit pervades all her cases


Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon), the prominent civil rights lawyer, specialist in inquests and director of Birnberg Peirce solicitors, is a powerful presence who radiates wisdom, warmth and calm. I remember watching Evan Davis interviewing Marcia on BBC’s Newsnight after the Hillsborough verdict came in, and thinking that it was probably the first time that the whole country was watching a black woman lawyer acknowledged as the leader of a momentous legal victory.

In recognition of her achievements, Marcia was appointed as an honorary silk in 2017. She also became an associate member of Coram Chambers. Representing 77 of the 96 families at the Hillsborough Inquest, she guided a huge team of silks, juniors and solicitors in a case that had a profound national impact, and she is currently representing the interests of a number of the bereaved and survivors from Grenfell Tower at the Inquiry headed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

MC: What attracted you to the law?

MWS: I started in local government, making my way up the managerial ladder, and saw that most senior managers and chief executives had a background in law. So I went to the University of the South Bank, which had an exchange programme with Columbia University in New York.

I ended up working for the celebrated criminal judge, Bruce Wright, author of Black Robes, White Justice, who became known as ‘Civil Wright’ when he moved to a civil practice. Working with him was a revelation for me on what the law could do. He had an abiding sense of social and racial injustice. When I was walking with him one day I remember he saw someone kicking a big cardboard box on the pavement and said ‘Don’t kick that box – it could be someone’s home.’ The following year, I ended up coordinating the programme for other students to go to Columbia, including a young David Lammy [Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000].

Marcia became involved with the women’s refuge movement (she was chair of Camden Women’s Aid for a number of years) and that also gave her ‘an understanding of the law’s impact on the lives of vulnerable people’. It soon becomes apparent that Marcia is a legal aid practitioner through and through.

MC: So how quickly did you move from being a trainee at Birnbergs to doing some of the most high profile cases in England?

MWS: It was a friend who suggested I start clerking at Birnbergs. I was immediately hooked and very fortunate to be taken on, and as Ben Birnberg’s last trainee. My first public success was a judicial review, where the prison authorities were obliged by the court to have the welfare of the child as its paramount consideration when deciding whether or not to separate a baby born in prison from a mother who was still serving her sentence. That baby stayed with her mother until her release, and since then I have received a card and photos every Christmas and birthday. She is now at university and doing really well all round.

MC: Given the number of high profile inquests you have undertaken, do they now dominate your practice?

MWS: The inquests have the biggest public profile, but I do still have a mixed public law practice. I represented Brian Haw, the Parliament Square anti-war protester and successfully challenged the extradition of an American woman, still wanted for kidnap of her daughter, even though the child had long since reached adulthood.

"When I have a team of barristers, I do not expect the most senior counsel to hog the limelight. We had over 25 barristers, juniors and silks, at Hillsborough. I wanted each one of them to do their best on specific topics and with different witnesses."

I first became involved in inquest law in a challenge to the coroner over his conduct of inquests about women who had died in prison, and his refusal to consider and apply the Human Rights Act 1998, which had then come into force. We were successful. I then began to work with the organisation INQUEST, and have been involved in inquests ever since. I was part of the team representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes [the Brazilian student shot dead by the police in 2005], and represented the family of Mark Duggan [shot dead by the police in 2011].

MC: What is it like running a huge team of barristers, and how do you do it?

MWS :I was recently in a meeting with a lawyer – from another jurisdiction I am glad to say – who was being considered as part of a team. He kept saying he wanted to be in control. I had to tell him firmly that in my cases, the client is the one in control. This is not lip service. The client is in the driving seat. The relationship with the client is central. It must be empathetic but absolutely boundaried at the same time. People who work with me understand that.

MC: Do your barristers always do what you say?

MWS: [Laughing]. I am told I have ‘a look’! I used to run teams of people across a London borough. I think that was useful training. I do not think of myself primarily as a black-letter lawyer. (I suggest that is only because she spends much of her time riding herd on a bunch of unruly barristers.) It is about putting a team together and getting them to work together to achieve the best for the clients. I will interview counsel to see whether they are a good fit for the client and the team. Some clerks and barristers are bemused or amused by this, but I think it really works. In choosing counsel, I am clear about what I need them to bring to the case. When I have a team of barristers, I also do not expect the most senior counsel to hog the limelight. We had over 25 barristers, juniors and silks, at Hillsborough. I wanted each one of them to do their best on specific topics and with different witnesses. I suppose I am not phased by managing people or the task of bringing them on.

MC: What makes a great courtroom advocate?

MWS: Great courtroom advocacy is a sight to behold. You know when it is happening because you can hear a pin drop. People hold their breath. On top of a complete grasp of your case and the other side’s case, it is about presence, authority in the room. It comes in all sorts of different styles.

MC: What about big egos? Is it a problem?

MWS: I imagine you have to have a certain amount of ego to be a barrister in the first place; to want to stand up in front of all those people and say your piece. But you also need to know when to let go of that ego; knowing when to speak and – this is very important – when to sit down. Or not to get up in the first place. The court knows you are there. It does not always need to hear your voice. Can I also say that if your solicitor is in court with you – often not the case in legal aid work these days I know – then do turn around and ask if you have missed anything. You are part of a team; they have been living their big case just as you have. Two heads really are better than one.

MC: What is it like being in the public eye?

MWS: I do not enjoy giving press interviews, but one day a client said to me, ‘There are no black civil rights lawyers in the UK.’ I thought it was time to start being visible. BAME lawyers need to be seen and heard. They need to be visible. It’s not just defendants who can be black, their lawyers can be too.

MC: What has been your personal experience of racism and sexism as a black female civil rights lawyer?

MWS: Conscious and unconscious racism and sexism is everywhere. It is in the air we breathe. At the Mark Duggan inquest, the television news ran a strapline under my photograph identifying me as Mark’s mother. I was the lead solicitor for the family with a team of three barristers! Identifying me as a relative simply because I was black, and because I was there, was unthinking racism. It is of great concern to me that this kind of racism and sexism is still so pervasive, but I am afraid it is.

What has saddened me more than anything else recently are the revelations about the ‘hostile environment’ created as a deliberate policy by the Home Office, and the shame it has brought on to our country. It has been terrible to see so many elderly people being victimised and hounded out by this policy. My parents came here from Jamaica in the 50s and I am hurt and angry to see how this policy has affected their generation.

MC: How can we do more to combat it?

MWS: One thing I think of as my duty, is to support young women and young BAME lawyers, especially from poorer backgrounds. Discrimination is of course about poverty as well as race and gender. At the Hillsborough inquests, we had students from the local sixth form college intern with us. These were kids who had previously not thought about working in a profession. Some of them were very bright, but normally, they never get a look-in.

I would like to sit and talk to her all day, but Marcia has to go. She is a funny, kind, warm person, completely devoid of self-importance, who also happens to be one of the most remarkable lawyers of her generation. I realise I am somewhat in awe of her. I hope she never has cause to give me the look.

 

Martha Cover, a child law specialist and joint head of Coram Chambers, was interviewed by Julia Smart QC in the March 2019 issue of Counsel.

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Martha Cover

Martha Cover is a child law specialist and joint head of Coram Chambers.