It is hard now to escape the dapper, bearded figure of Imran Khan, pronouncing on racial issues, collecting awards, or speaking out in the news. He is still not as well-known as his namesake, the former Pakistan cricketer, but don't bet on that lasting. When he was first contacted about the murder of a young black man in south London, Khan was a little-known solicitor practising in Ealing, west London, who had qualified only two years earlier. The murder victim was Stephen Lawrence. Seven years on, it seems that each time a black or Asian person is assaulted or killed, Khan is contacted - not just as a lawyer, but as an icon of hope for a black community fighting against the system.
Khan's influence has been immense. At 34, he perhaps more than anybody can claim responsibility for showing how racism is institutionalised in the criminal justice system. In recent months, he has taken on two other high-profile cases from his firm J R Jones: the investigation of the apparent suicides of Harold and Jason McGowan in Telford, west Midlands, and the attack on the Asian teenager Sarfraz Najeib, allegedly by Leeds football stars. He is a solicitor destined to be on the front pages of newspapers for some time to come.
He is also, however, a man who raises hackles. Even people who speak well of him - and most of his colleagues say he is a fine and competent lawyer - seem to have reservations about his methods. A favourable comment on the Lawrence case is often followed by a sharp intake of breath when you ask: "And what do you think of the way in which he handled it?" The hesitant, and mainly diplomatic, responses indicated that, like most icons, he has sides that some people find difficult to deal with.
It was the Anti-Racist Alliance that first called Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, in the week after Stephen Lawrence's death. One lawyer turned down the case before Khan was tracked down, and instantly demonstrated his ethos of dedication and hard work by going out on a Sunday for his first meeting with the Lawrences. The couple were impressed by Khan, who had worked with victims of racial discrimination and violence through the Newham Monitoring Project in east London.
"We were looking for a solicitor who had the knowledge and the political commitment to take on the case," explains Herbert, "and he demonstrated both those qualities." And how well did Khan deal with the case? "His approach was vindicated by the Macpherson report," replies Herbert. Then he adds: "Obviously we all make mistakes. Obviously things can always be done differently." He is talking about Khan's decision, once the director of public prosecutions had declined to act, to take out a private criminal prosecution against the main suspects for the Lawrence murder. The prosecution collapsed and, as a result, the suspects cannot be tried again on the same charges, even if more evidence comes to light. "I'm not sure," says Herbert, with reserve in his voice, "that I would have conducted the case differently. I think it was very difficult to contemplate anything other than a private prosecution at the time. Neville and Doreen both knew their own minds - and wanted it. It's arguable that the private prosecution led to the Macpherson inquiry, where a civil action would not have."
Marc Wadsworth, founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance, who initially approved Khan, and helped manage the media campaign at the start of the case, is far less diplomatic. "I took him on and I've regretted it ever since." He argues that the risk was too great and that he and the Lawrences were unwise to take it.
The alliance's own involvement with the case also has question-marks hanging over it; by the end of 1993, the Lawrences were so disillusioned by what they saw as the organisation's exploitative approach, that they severed all links. But the question remains. Did Khan, however unwittingly, turn the Lawrence case into a political campaign that turned out not to be in the best interests of either the Lawrence family or Duwayne Brooks, the sole witness? Even Wadsworth, though, cannot deny the importance of the private prosecution's consequences. "Macpherson was a wake-up call for Daily Mail-reading Middle England," he says.
And that perhaps provides a clue about Khan's engagement with the Lawrence case. He was born in Pakistan, and came to England when he was four. His father, who worked initially as a London bus conductor, hoped that Khan would receive "the best education in the world" when he got here - but his son was to be given another, more sinister education, through his first experiences of racist abuse and insults. At the Lister comprehensive school in Plaistow, east London, one teacher told him and his friends that they reminded him of the book Ten Little Nigger Boys. Khan once said: "The thing I remember about school is racism. It was the time of Paki-bashing and east London in the seventies and eighties was an incredibly horrible atmosphere to be living in."
The plan was originally for him to become a doctor. But Khan had already decided that he wanted to fight against racism, and instead joined the Newham Monitoring Project. While working there, he studied law at the former North-East London Polytechnic. When he graduated, he took on a traineeship at Birnberg's - subsequently Birnberg Peirce - the leading London human-rights firm. Its founder, Benedict Birnberg, has dealt with many miscarriages of justice, including the Derek Bentley case, while a senior partner, Gareth Peirce, has fought on high-profile assignations including the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and the Judith Ward case.
Birnberg retired officially last year, but he set an example that has evidently impacted strongly on Khan's style as a lawyer. In one interview, Khan enthused: "He has continued fighting. Most people working on miscarriages of justice cases tend to give up because they receive so many knockbacks. But people like Benedict have been going 30 years." Commenting on Khan's time at the firm, Birnberg says: "He wasn't outstanding, as articled clerks go, but he was a good worker and dedicated. He imbibed the culture of the firm, which is anti-establishment, and questioning all the time, taking up unpopular causes, and he's obviously done very well."
He adds: "I set the practice up, intending it to be fairly controversial. The ethos he got from us is: 'Never give up.' We were the firm that dealt with every lost cause, fighting sometimes for what appeared to be the most hopeless cases. For instance, who would have thought the Birmingham Six case could have been turned around?"
Birnberg's words combined with Khan's anti-racist background help to explain Khan's approach to the Lawrence case. But there is another side to him worth evaluating - as much to dismiss snide innuendoes from the right as to examine why he was so successful in achieving the Macpherson inquiry.
Through his handling of the media, and his successful challenges to the system, Khan has proved himself a natural political animal. He has also taken steps to become a professional politician, and in the last general election stood for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party.
During the Lawrence case, the police keenly resented Khan's approach, and began to hint at sinister political motives. In an interview with the Daily Mail, an anonymous officer said: "At the beginning we were very close to the family and had a good rapport. But later we had to go through several representatives before we could speak to them . . . We believe that the family are being used as pawns in a far wider game. Our inquiries are, in fact, being hampered by these people."
The article was written on 10 May 1993, two days after a Youth Against Racism in Europe march for Stephen Lawrence had erupted into violence. In the event, Khan was instrumental in sending letters to distance the Lawrence family from the radical and violent black factions on the march. If the police hoped to divert attention from the damage that the Lawrence case was doing to their own image, they miscalculated badly. But still people ask: is Khan more politician than lawyer and, if so, should this be such a source of concern?
Michael Mansfield QC, the barrister on the Lawrence case, also faced criticisms of his left-wing tendencies. He does not belong to Scargill's party, but is a member of the London Socialist Alliance. He says: "The interesting thing is that if one was to turn the whole concept on its head, and we were members of a right-wing think-tank, would we be criticised in the same way? Why should something totally democratic, whether it's Arthur's party or the London Socialist Alliance, be sneered at? It all seems to be part of the 'reds under the beds' hysteria."
Brian Cathcart, who covered the inquiry for the NS and wrote the book The Case of Stephen Lawrence, argues that Khan showed how it was possible to fight racism from within the system and avoid militant action. He compares the Lawrence case to the Rolan Adams case, where the rabble-rousing American preacher Al Sharpton flew in from the US to lead a march in south-east London. "If you do that," he says, "you alienate the people whose support you need. Khan offers the alternative - at every stage in the Lawrence case, he was looking at legal remedies."
In other words, Khan's political outlook, far from being a negative factor, has given him the confidence to turn the law into a campaigning tool that has proved revolutionary. As the human-rights lawyer Raju Bhatt says: "I think the progress of the case speaks for itself. The inquiry was undoubtedly because the criminal process had been seen and had been shown to be failing." Attitudes within the legal system are changing only slowly but, without Khan, we wouldn't even be at the starting line. As Cathcart says: "I am convinced we are better off for having Imran Khan around."