The Big Interview: Michael Mansfield QC

Michael Mansfield

Michael Mansfield has been fighting injustice and corruption in the courtroom for over 40 years. He talks to us about bombs, breaking into the Bar and #OscarsSoWhite.


Far from London's cobbled barristerial heartland, with its manicured gardens, listed buildings and attendant sushi outlets, legal history is being made. Around 200 miles north west of the capital, in an anonymous-looking office park outside Warrington, the Hillsborough Inquest is approaching its end. It began back in March 2014, making it the longest case ever heard by a British jury. For the families of Hillsborough victims, it's part of a battle for justice that's gone on for more than 25 years. Leading the legal charge is Michael Mansfield QC. As one of the country's most well-known human rights barristers, he's spent over four decades championing underdogs and defending civil liberties. He's represented striking miners, the Price sisters, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, as well as the families of Bloody Sunday victims, Mark Duggan, Stephen Lawrence, and Jean Charles de Menezes. A self-described 'radical lawyer', he's also a vegetarian, republican and keen cyclist. Naturally, the Daily Mail hates him.

You might expect such a venerable doyen of the Bar to be a dispassionate presence, dissecting his cases with clinical precision, but in person Mansfield is affable and garrulous. During a brief lunch break at the inquest, Mansfield recounts that “from the beginning I was lucky enough to get the kind of alternative work that the mainstream Bar wasn't interested in. That obviously gave me the reputation for being a 'red under the bed'.” In the early 70s, his big break came thanks to a left-wing revolutionary group known as the Angry Brigade, whose members were accused of placing incendiary devices in the doorways of Conservative politicians' houses, outside banks and embassies, and by a BBC van which was meant to broadcast the Miss World contest. “I was asked to defend one of the members by a solicitor I'd got to know," he tells us. "I was only three years' call and it was a very long trial at the Old Bailey. I'd hardly done anything at the Old Bailey before – I barely even knew where it was!” The trial lasted over six months (“in those days that was an astronomic amount of time”) and although four Angry Brigade members were convicted, Mansfield's client was acquitted. His reputation was set. “It was seen as subversive, almost, to be defending in a trial like that. 'How can you do it?!' was the reproach I got. People who supported unusual causes – let's put it like that – saw that I was prepared, along with some others, to take a stand in matters besides the usual robberies and murders and take on political cases.”

“My father said I probably wouldn't make it in the law because we didn't have the contacts.”

Radical blood didn't exactly flow through Mansfield's veins from birth. Born in Finchley in 1941, his upbringing was solidly suburban and middle class. His mother was a staunch Tory who had Mansfield distributing Conservative party leaflets as a boy. At his “minor” public school, Highgate, he served in the army cadets. So how did he end up as a crusading scourge of the establishment? The city of Stoke-on-Trent has a lot to do with it. Having failed to get into Cambridge, Mansfield scrambled to gain a spot at the newly-formed Keele University, just outside Stoke – the experience opened his eyes to a whole new world of deprivation and smog-choked industry. “I was angry about the injustice that I saw,” he recalls. “When I saw the conditions in which people lived and worked I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I went around the Potteries and watched the women carrying biscuit ware on their heads.” We know Stoke and can confirm that Mansfield is referring to a 'saggar', used to transport unfired ceramics. We'd also wager that Stoke's skyline of now-abandoned bottle kilns, rather than dreaming spires, would be unfamiliar stomping ground for many top QCs of Mansfield's generation.

His ambitions for a legal career began early. As “a child of the celluloid era,” he watched an American television show called The Defenders about a father-and-son lawyer team. It struck a chord. “What captivated me about the series was that the lawyers would take on an issue and see it through from start to finish. It might be an abortion, it might be an assault, it might be a civil claim. Whatever it was, they'd see a client and then work through the back story of how this person got to this situation in which they were having to go to court,” he explains. “Sometimes they were successful in defending their client, sometimes not. But I saw that they were doing something that was positive, constructive and was an end in itself.” Whatever the outcome, “people felt they were being listened to and were having their case put in a well-articulated way.” However, Mansfield admits, “I didn't know whether I could do it myself.” In fact, his father threw cold water on the idea – “I had no connections in the law. My family were a railway family. I was expected to go onto the railways, to follow in my father's footsteps,” he says. “My father said I probably wouldn't make it in the law because we didn't have the contacts. When someone says 'you probably won't make it', it has the opposite effect on me, so I thought 'yeah, I'll try, I'll give it a go.'”

“In those days it was as tough as it is now. The toughness then was that legal aid had only just come in and I had no money.”

Giving it a go involved an unorthodox method of obtaining pupillage. Mansfield simply walked into the Temple and asked for one. “I decided that was the only way. And I still think making personal contact is the only way anybody anywhere ever makes some sort of progress,” he explains. A bemused Temple treasurer passed him on to bespectacled barrister Quentin Edwards, “an extraordinary man who took me as his pupil on the spot!” Of course, Mansfield concedes, this “wouldn't happen now.” We certainly don't recommend you go wandering the Inns demanding pupillage from passing wig wearers. However, Mansfield's advice about making contact and networking still stands.

Quentin Edwards had “a very unusual practice” dealing with everything from tree root damage in churchyards to the licensing of pubs and clubs in Soho. In his spare time he was a Nonconformist lay preacher. It all sounds like something charmingly eccentric from an early 20th century novel, but Mansfield insists that Edwards enforced a strict regime onto his protégé. “I had to be in at 8am, sitting at my desk doing my work, all the way through till 6pm. I had lunch if I was lucky. He got me working extremely hard and he wasn't going to cut corners or anything like that, and that opened a lot of doors in my mind as to what the Bar was really all about: it's a lot of hard work, it's not all about standing up in court – you have to do the preparation.”

For aspiring advocates, the lesson to draw from this experience is that “if you want something badly and if you've got a voice – which as a barrister you're supposed to have – you have to go and ask for it and you have to persist.” He continues: “In those days it was as tough as it is now. The toughness then was that legal aid had only just come in and I had no money. My father had died and I was in straitened circumstances with no savings. I had to do jobs on the side to keep myself going.” So what does Mansfield advise today's students? “There are opportunities, but you have to create them, you have to go after them, and you have to act in solidarity with others who want the same sort of thing. What matters is that you want it enough and that others see that you want it, even if you're not quite the 'right' class of person and all the rest of it.”

“I fear there is still prejudice to some extent, though not in the same way I had to face.”

This sounds like rousing stuff, but there remains the huge issue of social mobility at the Bar, or lack thereof. How can talented candidates from non-privileged backgrounds succeed, given that it costs tens of thousands of pounds to qualify as a barrister? Mansfield is au fait with the situation. “Given the government's attitude to legal aid, it's very difficult even for fully-fledged barristers to make a living at the publicly funded Bar.” Mansfield recognises the continuing unfair advantage offered to those with connections in the law. “If you have family members who are barristers or judges that can open lots of doors because that's how it works. And I fear there is still prejudice to some extent, though not in the same way I had to face. The Bar is also an unusual profession and at most schools the possibility of becoming a barrister isn't exactly on the agenda. I've always been very keen to ensure that new universities and state schools do understand what the possibilities are for young people. The opportunities are there but you have to be very single-minded.”

What does Mansfield think of the idea of diversity quotas? “Things are not moving and haven't really moved for the whole of my lifetime and therefore something dramatic has got to happen,” he says. Quotas would help, he feels, “provided they are seen as a stop-gap and not as a permanent feature. In other words, you can use a quota system to kick things off, to get things moving, but the real change has to come through the education system. The state school sector is huge, the private school sector is very influential. So I tend not to go to private schools to do talks, I go to state schools.”

“You can use a quota system to kick things off, to get things moving, but the real change has to come through the education system.”

At this point our interviewee veers off on a tangent about the teaching of law in schools and comes back around, quite indignantly, to the diversity problem at the 2016 Oscars. “Sure you can have quotas, but we also have to develop a shared mindset so that those who are in positions of responsibility ensure that people put themselves forward. In the Oscars diversity row, people were saying 'oh we don't get enough people putting themselves forward.' Sorry, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy – people don't put themselves forward because they don't think they're going to get anywhere.” This issue, which Doughty Street barrister Tunde Okewale has referred to as 'the soft bigotry of low expectations', is one which students themselves can help address too by asking more questions about diversity and not being backward at coming forward.

Did Mansfield experience snobbery in his early days at the Bar, not having emerged from the traditional Eton-and-Oxford mould? “There was a very distinct unspoken exclusivity about the Bar,” he says. “Many of the people were members of clubs. And the Bar's dining halls were quite clubby. There were certain areas where senior people went rather than junior people. There was an air about the place. You were either part of it or you weren't. It was unspoken but you knew about it.” How did he respond? “I think I was able to cut through it to some extent because that wasn't why I'd come to the Bar in the first place. I knew I was coming from a different class, as it were.”

There's so much more we could ask Mansfield about: the decimation of legal aid and the uncertain future of the criminal Bar for starters. After all, Tooks Chambers, the set he founded in 1984, had to close its doors in 2013 following government cuts to legal aid. In response, Mansfield set up a new 'virtual' chambers which has only small premises at which barristers can hot-desk. There's also the question of retirement, but at 74 our interviewee shows no signs of slowing down: 20 minutes after he sits down with us, Mansfield is back on his feet, off to consult with colleagues and then get back to court. As long as civil liberties need to be defended then Michael Mansfield's got a job to do: sticking it to the Man.

This feature was first published in April 2016.

It was written and researched by Chambers' Anna Winter.