The New Statesman Profile - The radical lawyers

Once, the names of Mansfield, Sedley, Robertson et al infuriated judges. Have they sold out?

For many years there was a large graffito near Parsons Green Tube station in London, asking "What's a comin'?" and reassuringly answering "Socialism's a comin' ". It was scrawled by a young barrister, who is now a highly rated QC. The sign has gone now, and perhaps the motivation that prompted it has vanished, too. The radical lawyer of yesteryear - not just our graffitist, but many others of his passion - has all but disappeared and there are few to take his place.

In the past few weeks, the solicitor Benedict Birnberg, pioneer fighter against miscarriages of justice, announced his retirement; Stephen Sedley, once a member of the Communist Party, was promoted to the Court of Appeal and is now Lord Justice Sedley; Nina Stanger, a once prominent activist barrister, died tragically young at 55; and Geoffrey Robertson QC has been all over the media publicising his book of memoirs, The Justice Game. Helena Kennedy QC - Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws - is a government working peer, though she occasionally rebels against the Lord Chancellor's policies. Only Michael Mansfield QC, forcefully representing the Lawrence family at the Macpherson inquiry, has been doing what he was doing 25 years ago - behaving as a radical lawyer.

So where have they all gone, the radicals of the sixties and seventies? Sold out, or just grown up and mellowed? And who are their successors? Or is it that the fight has been won and legal radicalism has finished its job?

There is a definitional difficulty encountered at every turn of thought. What is a radical lawyer? What I mean by it are those lawyers whose actions and attitudes were largely motivated by a political ideology - socialism and further left; or at least angry lawyers dedicated to fundamental changes to the law, its institutions and the legal system. They were fearless in putting their often unpopular views across, and it was their badge of honour to be criticised intemperately by others in the legal system. I frequently used to hear vile, unprintable, almost hysterical remarks made about leftie lawyers; I have seen judges in court barely able to speak civilly to the likes of Michael Mansfield, such was their hatred of him and the threat they thought he represented to the good order of the law. It often took a lot of courage for radical lawyers to speak up on behalf of their clients, not least because their own professional bodies were equally suspicious of them, ready to pounce on and punish any minor lapse of professional conduct.

It was a time when defendants alleged to have committed serious crimes such as terrorism, or offences associated with labour disputes, or even pushing at the boundaries of freedom of artistic expression, discovered that the number of lawyers willing to act for them was suddenly very small. The much-vaunted "cab-rank principle", under which barristers are supposed to take on cases irrespective of the nature of the client or the alleged crime, was disgracefully breached. When the Price sisters were accused of terrorism, 27 QCs managed to become unavailable. And when those members of the "alternative bar", as it was slightingly called by the legal establishment, did act vigorously on behalf of their unpopular clients, they were unfairly tainted, and assumed to support their clients' actions and beliefs. The radical cause wasn't limited to criminal trials and miscarriages of justice. In the sixties and early seventies, all sorts of things were considered beyond the pale by mainstream judges and lawyers: the promotion of racial equality (Geoffrey Bindman, Anthony - now Lord - Lester and, more flamboyantly, the late Rudy Narayan), the provision of law centres (Peter Kandler, who opened the first one, in Notting Hill), resistance to the obscenity laws (Geoffrey Robertson), women's rights (Helena Kennedy) and representing squatters (Nina Stanger), drug-takers (David Offenbach and the late Bernie Simons), immigrants (Ian Macdonald, Bindman) or militant strikers and trade unions (John Hendy and the solicitors' firm Seifert Sedley).

And when Lord Gifford, his hereditary title belying his radicalism, set up a barristers' chambers not inside one of the Inns of Court but in Covent Garden and, moreover, instituted an equal-pay policy, the rest of the Bar and the judiciary were enraged.

Some of the radical lawyers, though not all, had a grounding in Marxist politics. The chambers Cloisters was known as the Kremlin, the firm Seifert Sedley generally regarded as communist. Many radical lawyers of the time belonged to the Haldane Society, the original think-tank of Labour lawyers, which split in the late forties when the more moderate Society of Labour Lawyers (led by Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor) was set up in protest at the Haldane Society's refusal to exclude communists.

The miners' strike of 1984 provided the last great explosion of radical lawyers' anger and unity. What has happened since has been a decline in the radicals' generically hostile attitude to the law and its institutions, and its replacement by more closely focused single-issue legal activity. The radicals of the sixties and seventies, although they, too, had their own special interests and obsessions, seemed somehow linked, a loose but identifiable band of brothers and sisters. Today that general passion has fragmented into separate issues: battered women, blacks in the criminal justice system, the environment, asylum-seekers, whatever.

The most important reason for the radical lawyer's decline, though, is far simpler. Many of the once controversial policies proposed and fought for by the old legal left are now accepted as sensible and necessary, by society and by government. The iniquitous system for reviewing alleged wrongful convictions has been replaced by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Providing access to justice for the disadvantaged and the less well-off, including a community legal service, has become the corner-stone of this government's legal policies. The European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into British law and will from next year allow human rights breaches to be brought to our own courts and judges. All these improvements may yet disappoint in practice, but their very existence means fewer causes for dissatisfaction and unrest for the legal radical. Even more strikingly, judicial review has provided a channel by which just about any decision of any authority can be challenged in the courts.

Not just the laws, but the attitudes of judges has largely changed. To have suggested, as the radicals did in countless court cases in the sixties and seventies, that the police were capable of lying and of concocting evidence was deeply offensive to the judiciary. Now, no judge can deny police malpractice. Male judicial attitudes to women, while by no means perfect, have improved immeasurably. And judges are, with some exceptions, nowhere near the out-of-touch dinosaurs of popular image; indeed, they fall over themselves to establish their credentials in human rights and modernity. It is therefore beside the point, as well as often unfair, to accuse the old radicals of selling out.

Michael Mansfield recently attracted unwelcome publicity when his excessive fee for a criminal appeal in the House of Lords was drastically reduced and it was revealed that he had charged his client at the rate of £416 an hour from the legal aid fund - taxpayers' money. But he has coupled this fat-catism with a continuous string of rights cases - on deaths in police custody, for example - which he often does for free. Anyway, there's nothing that says a radical has to remain poor.

The feisty Lady Kennedy is now an active chairman of the British Council, a university vice-chancellor (Oxford Brookes) and member of umpteen committees; her life is taking her far away from the combative legal circles of her early career. Geoffrey Robertson, some of his friends claim, wants to be a High Court judge. He's still passionately involved in issues of free speech and a variety of other injustices; but, like many firebrands of his generation, his radicalism has shaded into libertarianism. Human rights is the fashion of the day, and probably of the next decade. The chambers he founded in Doughty Street started off being generally described as a radical chambers, with the implication that it was somehow in confrontation with a legal establishment. Today, it's referred to as a human rights chambers: respectable, admired, worthy, above all unthreatening. The same goes for Cloisters, the old crucible of radicalism. The nearest to the traditional radical chambers is 2 Garden Court, headed by Owen Davies and Ian Macdonald QC (himself an immigration law radical), and containing a number of stalwarts of the old days, notably Nicholas Blake QC.

Are there any radical lawyers left? Mansfield, yes; John Hendy QC, continuing his battles for trade union rights and protecting labour from exploitation by the bosses; Gareth Peirce, the quiet, almost secretive queen of miscarriages of justice, returning the CBE she was awarded in the New Year's honours list; Edward Fitzgerald QC, aggressively and almost single-handedly improving the rights of life-sentence prisoners. There are a few others from the old days. Today, a cluster of young angry black and Asian lawyers such as Raju Bhatt and Imran Khan, the Lawrences' tireless solicitor, continue to batter at the doors of racial injustice; and Sarah Maguire and a few colleagues are fighting on in the cause of women disadvantaged by the system.

But young radical lawyers are not easily spotted these days. It's not just a lack of causes - there are still many around, though at the unfashionable end of legal activity: poverty, housing, violence in the home. Partly it's a result of the disappearance of the ideological education that moulded so many left-wing lawyers in the past. More mundanely, with the decline in legal aid and the difficulties newly qualified lawyers have in finding work, earning a living has become more important than making a radical mark on the law.