Sunday, 7 February 2010

Michael Mansfield – Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer
Pubs. Bloomsbury
Hdbck £20

Michael Mansfield, the larger than life barrister, renowned for his defence of the victimised, despised and marginalised, here provides his own account of events. As an outsider, even though from a Conservative, lower middle class family, gaining entrance to the hallowed cloisters of the legal profession was an almost insurmountable task. A broad and liberal education at the then (in the sixties) innovative new university of Keele certainly broadened his horizons but didn’t make him a left-wing firebrand. He did though emerge with a healthy distrust of authority and the police as well as a disdain for an arcane and class-dominated judicial system. To challenge all this was, in his early years as a legal practitioner, was more mischievous fun than ideological conviction.

He did join the cloisters of the renowned left-wing barrister, John Platts Mills, for a short time and I’m sure the latter must have made a deep impression on Mansfield the young lawyer, but he says little about this and doesn’t even mention Platts Mills’ own fascinating memoirs in his bibliography which is inexplicable.

By challenging some of the sacred shibboleths of the legal profession and taking up unpopular cases like that of the Angry Brigade in the sixties, he soon found himself cast as the ‘subversive red under every legal bed’. He says, ‘My first brush with radicalism had aroused only a spirit of enquiry rather than conversion,’ but even this was sufficient to alarm the establishment. Since then, of course, and particularly through his work defending miners’ pickets during the ’84 strike, he became politically evermore radicalised.

He gives fascinating accounts of a number of his more famous cases and illustrates how justice can go awry and ‘scientific evidence’ can be far from scientific. He demonstrates how easy it is to arrive at lazy conclusions which are often erroneous, and how easily we unquestioningly take on prejudices. Perhaps even more importantly, he reveals how social causes are very often at the root of so much crime, but are invariably ignored. He also demonstrates the social and economic context of most trials. He reconfirms that the law should not be left to lawyers alone – it is not above society but part of the whole and should not be divorced from social care and social understanding. He tears away the veil of secrecy over state collusion in the capitalist system and reveals the hollowness of police impartiality. No wonder the establishment hates him.

Talking of the present crisis, he says: ‘None of this is the result of unpredictable international forces, but rather a consequence of deliberate policies aimed at bolstering the institutions of capital, and readily explains why striking mines were demonised as the “enemy within”.’

His final chapter, ‘Yes, we can!’ is fired with inspiration, hope and a deeply-felt humanity rarely found, particularly perhaps among lawyers. We have to be extremely thankful and proud that we have lawyers like Michael Mansfield willing to stand up to the forces of authority in the name of the people and, like his hero Tom Paine, challenge ingrained class hegemony and injustice.

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