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A friend in court

Liz Davies reviews Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer by Michael Mansfield QC (Bloomsbury, 2009)

December 21, 2009
3 min read


Liz Davies is chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She writes here in a personal capacity


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A glance through Michael Mansfield’s cases – many resulting in the release of innocent people from serving jail sentences for crimes that they did not commit – confirms that he’s earned his reputation. Moreover, Mansfield understands that courtroom victories themselves are never going to change the world, and places himself squarely within political movements for radical change.

After training, Mansfield very quickly became a defence lawyer, specialising initially in drugs possession cases and supplementing his practice with volunteer work at addict centres. It seems to have been this experience that radicalised him. He has drawn on John Stuart Mill to argue that acts which do not encroach on the life or liberty of someone else should not be criminalised. Mansfield is also known for developing bonds with his clients and keeping in touch with them. As a result he knows the human cost of miscarriages of justice.

His career has included some of the most famous trials in the past 30 years. He’s best known for the tenacious legal and political campaigns that exonerated the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater Three, the Tottenham Three, the Cardiff Three, Judith Ward and Angela Cannings, after having served years for crimes that they had not committed.

In the legal profession, he is best known for his meticulous questioning of forensic evidence and his challenging of assumptions. Mansfield’s successful appeal of the Angela Cannings case – in which she had been convicted of murdering her children after the genetic predisposition of her children to infant mortality was overlooked – set a legal precedent against such cases being swayed by statistical evidence alone.

After the death of Stephen Lawrence, Mansfield and Imran Khan had to develop new legal skills. Suddenly these defence lawyers became prosecutors, trying to convict Lawrence’s murderers when the police had failed to do so. They eventually held the police and the murderers accountable through the Macpherson Inquiry, rather than in the courtroom. Significantly, they forced a retired high court judge, well-known for his illiberal opinions, to understand and uphold the concept of institutional racism.

The book is a riveting read. It’s full of great detail about the process of cross-examination, the fallibility of scientific evidence and the human stories behind the legal details. Mansfield says he’s retiring from legal practice, but let’s wait and see.

Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer is available for purchase here.

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Liz Davies is chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She writes here in a personal capacity


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