What’s gone wrong with our democracy? Michael Mansfield QC

Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer – Michael Mansfield, QC

In a fascinating, entertaining and wide ranging Question and Answer talk from renowned Barrister Michael Mansfield QC at London’s City University, Michael talked freely and frankly about a wide range of interesting and well known cases he’s worked on during his 42 years at the Bar.

Interviewed by former Guardian Editor, Roy Greenslade, he opened by saying he’d chosen the legal career path having noted his mother’s battle over a parking ticket and a stint he undertook as a volunteer at an advice centre for drug addicts. Though he’s primarily been a defence lawyer, he has occasionally undertaken prosecutions, most notably, a few private prosecutions for families affected by the Marchioness River boat tragedy and prosecuted the 5 alleged murderers of Stephen Lawrence.

In attendance and often referred to where two of the so called Birmingham 6, who were acquitted of the Birmingham pub bombings of 21st November 1974.

Defending the indefensible

He emphasised that he believed everyone had a right to representation, no matter what, even if they’d admitted to committing the crime. This seemed to Roy Greenslade to be defending the indefensible, but his reasoning was that there were usually mitigating circumstances behind any act and as a defence lawyer it was his role to ascertain these and put them across as best he could in Court. This may not get the accused off the charge, but may help reduce the severity of the potential sentence.

He said he doesn’t trust the Police, the establishment, witnesses, anything, and outlined the basketball teams observational exercise scenario. I won’t spoil it by explaining this, suffice to say it does help you understand why you can’t always trust witnesses, even the most plausible of eye witnesses.

DNA database

For many reasons Michael’s against the national DNA database. He stated that that over the years information had been seriously misused and disabused, quoting examples of Ministers and civil servants leaving behind on trains, memory sticks full of confidential personal information.

Use of the information super highway simply opens up more possibilities of this happening.

DNA is also not infallible either he said. DNA can result in mixed profiles. He mentioned that we leave a part of our DNA behind us all the time, for instance on the seats we sat on in the King Oliver lecture theatre for this debate. When leaving people will inadvertently pick up the fibres of the person who has sat in the seat beforehand, as will others who sit on the seats after us, via our hands and fibres of our clothing.

Identity cards

He’s against this too for numerous reasons. Whilst agreeing that information is necessary,” it has to be controlled”. This [identity cards] is stepping over the mark.

Lockerbie Disaster

Turning to the topical issue of the Lockerbie disaster of 21st December 1988 and 20 August 2009 release of Al Megrahi, he said in August 2007 a lot more questions should have been asked. He was quite clear that the eye witness description of him simply didn’t match at all.” It was very poor”, added to which they relied on identification from 10 years ago. He called for a public enquiry, for the benefit of the families of victims from Scotland, England and the USA. “Truth should be transparent and open. I think they [the authorities] see this topic as too hot to handle and just want it to go away.”

Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed

He stated that the French Jury did not deliver an “accidental” verdict on their deaths. He too does not believe it was an accident and hopes the truth will out eventually, but wasn’t confident it would do so during his life time.

Gill Dando

He didn’t find it plausible that Barry George could have shot and killed her simply by walking up to her, shooting her from behind the head and running off. He felt it was most likely an unfortunate, opportunistic drive by shooting, especially as she didn’t live at the address in Fulham from where she was killed, but was more an ad hoc occasional visitor.

Dr David Kelly, Government Scientist who died in July 2003

He didn’t believe he committed suicide, finding it highly implausible that he could have so neatly killed himself by slashing the veins in his hand and not leave a huge pool of blood behind. It would be so difficult to have done that, which makes him think it wasn’t the suicide the public have been lead to believe it was.

The Labour Party and Human Rights

When asked by a man in the audience if he felt that the Labour Party had abandoned human rights, he said he felt they had abandoned human rights and civil liberties for the exigencies of the day. “It’s time to boot out both main parties. It wouldn’t do any harm next time round to have a hung parliament,” he said.

Expenses scandal and democracy

Talking about the expenses scandal and the lack of a watchdog over this in the House of Commons, he asked, “What’s gone wrong with our democracy ? The problem is it’s no longer democratic. People marched in huge numbers to demonstrate against going into Iraq, but the Government ignored the wishes of the majority and carried on regardless.”

There is a lot more detail and explanation to be found in his book to these and other cases he’d handled over the years. This was a fascinating talk and insight into the thinking behind one of the country’s leading Barristers of the last 4 decades and an interesting eye opener into the legal system and the thoughts and mind of one of the countries most radical, establishment challenging lawyers of the past 42 years.

Michael Mansfield QC was speaking at City University, 10th September 2009.

© Tiemo Talk of the Town – 11th September 2009

Michael Mansfield – Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer published by Bloomsbury 7 September 2009

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