Michael Mansfield QC: ‘If anybody says you can’t do it, I reckon you can.’

In the second instalment of a two-part article, the self-styled ‘radical lawyer’ Michael Mansfield talks to Catherine Baksi about legal aid, what made him become a lawyer and, if he had his time again, why he would be a jazz drummer. You can read the first part here. Pic: Michael Mansfield and Maxine Peake at the launch of Greater Manchester Law Centre

Michael Mansfield in the Court of Appeal in the Barry George case. Court sketch by Priscilla Coleman
Michael Mansfield in the Court of Appeal in the Barry George case. Court sketch by Priscilla Coleman

The greatest professional change in Michael Mansfield’s half-century career at the Bar, he reckons, has been the constant undermining of the legal aid scheme – or as he puts it, the ‘asset-stripping’ started by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair and successive governments of both hues.

The barrister blames the cuts for the demise of his chambers, Tooks Court, which he founded in 1984. Over 90% of its work was publicly funded and Mansfield claims people ‘got worried and lost the confidence to stay’.

Morale at the publicly-funded Bar plummeted as barristers had the ‘spirit knocked out of them’. ‘Most legal aid lawyers are very committed and work extremely hard, but they hang together on a thread and are having to cut corners all the time.’

Unlike many of colleagues at the Bar, Mansfield supports the idea of a fused profession, because, he argues, it is better for the lay client. He predicts that the professions will slowly merge beginning at the impoverished publicly funded end of the profession as legal aid lawyers fight for survival.

‘It’s happening in an evolutionary way at the moment anyway,’ Mansfield says. ‘Probably over the next decade the Bar will slowly fade away – people are already leaving the bar because they can’t survive.’

Full circle
Mansfield has been involved in the law centre movement from the start. He helped set up Tottenham Law Centre in the 1970s and is patron of the brand new Greater Manchester Law Centre. In an open letter to the city’s mayor, Andy Burnham, the centre asked him to impose a levy on corporate law firms in the city to fund free legal services for people in poverty and vulnerability – as reported on LegalVoice here.

When the QC was working to help set up Tottenham, he recalls that they encouraged contributions from the community because they felt it was important not to rely on local or central government funding as they would, in many cases, be fighting cases against them.

‘We have now come full circle. We’re back to the situation in which law centres are struggling to survive,’ he says. ‘The biggest need is for the government to redress the situation with legal aid, but it’s not a priority, so law centres will have to find money in other ways.’

Mansfield backs the levy idea and would like to see the model spread to other cities, including Liverpool, Leeds and London. ‘Law centres can’t survive on public finding. It would make a wonderful collaboration if the commercial firms, some of which are making huge profits, recognised the valuable work being done by the law centre, wanted to contribute financially to it and re-channel something back into the community,’ he says.

But the silk is also conscious of ministers jumping on the idea and enthusiastically abdicating their own responsibility for properly funding the legal aid scheme. ‘We’re already letting the government off the hook doing pro bono work. The more you do for nothing, the more the government will expect you to do for nothing.’

On a cautionary note, he says that Greater Manchester Law Centre is the third centre that has been set up in Manchester, after the previous two closed. The only reason, this one is working, says its patron, is because of its ‘amazingly dedicated, hardworking firebrand’ chairman, John Nicholson. ‘Whether this one would survive without him, who knows,’ he adds.

Why law?
Mansfield, who was born and grew up in Finchley in North London, did not have a legal background. His father, who had lost a leg in the First World War, worked on the railways, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather, and the boy Mansfield was expected to follow suit.

Three factors lead him to the law. The first was an incident that happened to his mother that had a profound affect on her and her son. She was summonsed to court for having parked between the studs of a pedestrian crossing, something she fiercely denied. She fought the case in Highgate Magistrates’ Court and won.

His father, who had been in the car at the time of the alleged offence gave evidence in court in his wheelchair, that his wife had not and would never have parked in the manner the policeman suggested, and that the policeman, who had not clocked Mansfield senior sitting in the car at the time, had lied.

‘After that my mother always said: “There, if they do that to me, what are they doing to everybody else?”,’ he recalls. ‘She was a staunch Conservative, pamphleted for Margaret Thatcher, was a thoroughly law-abiding citizen, upheld the flag and everything that was loyal – and to be treated in this way undermined her confidence and she never really overcame it.’

The incident, he recalls, ‘lit a fuse’ in him that burned stronger as he watched episodes of the 1960s US courtroom drama The Defenders in which a father and son attorney duo fight for justice.

But his father counselled him against the law, telling him he lacked the means and the background to enter ‘a different world’. ‘For me, if anybody says you can’t do it, I reckon you can do it,’ says Mansfield.

After failing to get into university, he took himself up to Keele University and sought an interview with the admissions tutor, who obliged and gave him a place to do philosophy. His exposure to poverty for the time as a student at Keele shocked him.

Mansfield secured pupillage in an unconventional manner, knocking on doors at chambers in the Temple. As an undergraduate at Keele, not studying law, his efforts did not initially go well. But he joined Gray’s Inn and eventually found someone willing to give him a pupillage.

After his call in 1967, he ended up at Paper Buildings, a prosecution set with only one defender. ‘He nurtured me and showed me how to do it. I was taught from the bottom up,’ he says. While his mother lived to see him become a lawyer his father died before he went to university.

On the bench
In the 1980s Mansfield was invited to go to the bench, and he says, he did think about it seriously. ‘It’s a public duty and an obligation and I thought maybe that’s where I could make a difference.’

But he was concerned that his desire to air his ‘strong humanitarian views’ would be incompatible with life as a judge. He was also anxious that he might get sucked in to the establishment and people suggested that a judicial post was being offered in an attempt ‘to spike your guns’.

At the time he was busy on the Birmingham Six case. ‘I decided I’d be more use continuing to do miscarriage of justice cases than becoming identified as part of the establishment,’ he says.

If he had not gone to the Bar, he reckons he would have followed his father into the railways. ‘But if I could choose, I’d really like to be a jazz drummer. I do play, but terribly badly. I love life music and I love jazz – that’s the lost paradise that I would like.’

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