The families of those killed in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings turned to Belfast based KRW Law because ‘they were unable to find a local firm to take their case’ according to Christopher Stanley, litigation consultant at the Northern Ireland firm. The families had been, he says ‘ignored since 1974’.
KRW’s intervention changed that. Acting pro bono, the firm succeeded in June 2016 in persuading the senior coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, Louise Hunt, to reopen the inquest into the 21 deaths. It was, said Stanley writing for Legal Voice, ‘a seismic day for the families, and an important day for justice.’ The bereaved are hoping they will be able to establish whether the deaths could have been prevented, had warnings been acted on ahead of the explosions. For all the supposedly inquisitorial (rather than adversarial) nature of inquests, the case is likely to be hard fought. West Midlands is police setting aside £1m for its legal fees.
Few would doubt KRW will be up to the task – if it does actually get the chance to represent the families when the hard-won inquest gets underway next year (of which more later).
The firm claims to be Northern Ireland’s biggest criminal defence, human rights and public law firm, aiming ‘to achieve excellence in all aspects of its work and to act for all sections of the community’.
Stanley describes Northern Ireland, with its legacy of ‘lawyering under fire’, as ‘a challenging, exasperating, frustrating, rewarding and exciting jurisdiction’ to work in.
Although the firm is a product of its Northern Ireland roots, its ambitions are increasingly stretching beyond the province. It is acting in the Brexit challenge (for Fergal McFerran, president of the National Union of Students – Union of Students in Ireland); and it was recently instructed by the sister of the late Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, to raise questions about the police investigation of the case. On its website, it claims to have advised the Scottish lawyers acting for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted over the Lockerbie bombing, and the lawyers representing the family of Madeleine McCann (advising on the validity of the controversial forensic science of Low Copy Number DNA).
A Northern Ireland firm may not have been the first or most obvious choice for the families of the Birmingham bombings victims. However, KRW’s experience of dealing with what Stanley calls ‘conflict-related legacy litigation’ in the province, made the seven partner firm particularly well qualified to act in such an historic and politically charged case. Few firms can claim to have a whole department dedicated to acting for families alleging collusion between the state and paramilitaries in the deaths of their relatives.
Writing about the Birmingham inquest for Legal Voice in June 2016, Stanley was hopeful of winning Home Office funding for the case, along the lines of that put in place for the Hillsborough families. However, persuading the coroner to reopen the case was one thing, persuading the Home Secretary to fund the families’ lawyers was quite another. Not only did Amber Rudd reject calls for a Hillsborough-style scheme, but KRW was told it wouldn’t even get legal aid unless it partnered with an English or Welsh firm. Contractual restrictions meant the Legal Aid Agency couldn’t pay Belfast-based KRW, under its exceptional case funding scheme.
For the firm whose doggedness had been key to getting the Birmingham case off the ground to be told they need to partner with lawyers who had previously shown less professional interest in the case will have been galling, indeed.
Its lawyers have had worse setbacks, though.
The firm’s founder, Kevin Winters was apprenticed to Patrick Finucane at the time of the latter’s murder in 1989, and went on to become a partner at Madden and Finucane. He set up his own firm, Kevin R Winters & Co in 2001; the firm was rebranded as KRW Law in 2012.
Despite its growing profile, much of KRW’s work still emanates from close to home. Darragh Mackin, one of its youngest lawyers, is acting for Ibrahim Halawa, the Irish student arrested following street protests during a family holiday in Egypt in 2013. Mackin, who won the Newcomer award at this year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, is also working on the ‘hooded men’ litigation, instructed by clients who were interned 45 years ago, during the early stages of the Northern Ireland conflict.
The firm is also known for its criminal work, but this, too, will often also have a political element unknown to most firms specialising in defence work. Clients include Brendan McConville in his (unsuccessful) appeal against conviction for murdering PC Stephen Carroll; and Seamus Daly, acquitted after the collapse of his trial in relation to the Omagh bombing.
It also has a developing interest in ‘reputational management’, with the likes of George Galloway amongst its regular clients. Galloway recently described KRW in a tweet as a ‘top firm’, adding it had acted for him in a string of cases: ‘Google, Belfast Telegraph, Mirror and now Fake Sheikh’.
KRW has also taken steps to protect its own reputation. Following a Sunday Times story in 2014 about the hooded men, which referred to their legal representation, it sued the newspaper for libel. The case was settled on confidential terms at the door of the court, with the Sunday Times paying the firm’s costs. Among the heavyweight witnesses reportedly lined up to give evidence on its behalf were former deputy first minster Seamus Mallon, historian Dr Eamon Phoenix, former director of British Irish Rights Watch Jane Winter, plus leading lawyers.
For all this, its own reputation could still do with a bit of polishing. All seven of the firm’s partners are men, and a photo on its website, under the heading, ‘Welcome to KRW Law’, shows 14 unidentified (apparently) white men, of varying ages. Clearly, the firm didn’t get the memo (so beloved by the marketing departments of City firms in this jurisdiction) about the need to present a diverse face to the world.
For all this, it would be unfair to write the firm off as a bastion of macho lawyers or macho lawyering.
When Darragh Mackin won the Legal Aid Newcomer award in July this year, he was unable to attend in person to collect his trophy, so the task fell to KRW partner Peter Corrigan (see photo). It was the first award of the evening but Corrigan’s obvious affection and pride in his 24 year old colleague had the audience welling up.
A clearly moved Corrigan told the audience: ‘When we have public school boys posing as statesmen taking away our rights, we need young people like Darragh Mackin who are prepared to fight for the most vulnerable.’
In an anecdote which gave some indication of the additional pressure the firm’s lawyers face, Corrigan went on to describe a time when Mackin had gone ahead with interviewing a material witness in a criminal case, despite being warned by police he would be arrested if he did. ‘ It was a dirty trick, and Darragh walked right in there [to take the statement]. He is very, very courageous. He is very brave. I’m getting emotional,’ said Corrigan.
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