BBC Radio Four
A Law Unto Themselves
5 August 2014
Helena Kennedy QC (HK) interviews solicitor Gareth Peirce (GP).
(Click on the hyperlink in the title to listen to the interview as you read.)
HK: During a career spanning nearly forty years solicitor Gareth Peirce has exposed some of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history. She’s been described as the doyenne of British defence lawyers, is adored by her clients and has been offered, though refused, a CBE for services to justice. But she’s never far from controversy. Many of her clients have been accused or actually convicted of acts of terrorism. In the late 80’s and early 90’s she helped free convicted Irish bombers including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.
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More recently she worked to secure the release of British detainees in Guantánamo Bay and for years she thwarted government attempts the Muslim preacher Abu Qatada.
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Many see Gareth Peirce as an indefatigable fighter for human rights and defender of the underdog. But some argue that her work represents a threat to national security making Britain appear a safe haven for terrorists. Before he became a government minister Michael Gove described her as a passionate supporter of the Trotskyist Socialist Alliance, an apocryphal organisation I think but he said it was committed to destabilising the establishment. Her clients have included Julian Assange and the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing and of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead at Stockwell tube station in a bungled police raid.
Gareth Peirce, you’re famously reluctant to talk to the media but we’re not here today to put you or your clients on trial but to understand a little bit more about what you do and why you do it. One of your clients, the Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, said you specialised in representing pariahs of society. He said he knew because he was one of them. Would you agree with that description: A specialist in representing pariahs?
GP: I think any description is solely in the eye of the beholder. And who calls whom a pariah and the fickleness of society means that one day a pariah can be a hero and vice versa. And perhaps their lawyers rise and fall with that perception.
HK: It’s often the problem that people don’t distinguish the lawyer from their client and that the perception of both become entangled. Have you felt that that’s one of the things that happens in society?
GP: It does happen and it’s anticipated as happening in that there’s the UN covenant for the protection of the judiciary and lawyers which specifically prohibits the identification or the equation of a lawyer with the person he or she represents. And to the extent that lawyers are put in danger because of that then it’s something that United Nations has a special rapporteur to provide protection to investigate – particularly after the deaths of Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane in the North of Ireland. Pat Finucane was murdered after a minister had stood up in the House of Commons and talked about there being lawyers who were far too close to terrorist suspects they represent. It’s a dangerous comparative to make and sometimes with fatal results.
HK: But that confusion isn’t just in the minds of politicians. I mean it seems to sometimes exist in the minds of commentators in the media as well as amongst the general public. The idea of it: Well, if you’re going to act for people that are deemed to be enemies of the state it must be that you in some way are be in cahoots with them or in some way that you have some kind of sympathies that lie in that direction yourself.
GP: That’s a reflection of the shallowness of understanding of what the law is intended to do and the guarantees it’s intended to provide for anyone. And particularly the outlaws and outcasts of society are the people that the majority in society wishes to have no protection. That’s the whole concept of constitutional provisions that are the protection of the individual – the whole concept of the Bill of Rights in the United States.
HK: It’s always interested me that you went to the United States. You’re British born, a young woman who went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College at Oxford and it always seemed to me that it was partly the American experience that you had that really took you down a different road perhaps than you might have gone down as a journalist which you were at the time. You came back to live in Britain with your American husband in I think the late 70’s and you decided to train to become a lawyer.
GP: In America, the driving force was the civil rights movement itself. Lawyers were a useful tool and therefore insofar as individuals who were thinking of doing law might think that they could become in some way a useful tool – that I’m sure was what went through many peoples’ minds.
HK: You came and you studied law in London. One of the first cases that I ever remember your being involved in involved The Mangrove Club. It was a club in Notting Hill when Notting Hill was not the glamorous place it is today. And it was a club that was mainly used by young Caribbean people, but mainly men, and it became a kind of source of real interest for the police. They were always round there – constant arrests being made and certainly evidence forthcoming of police fitting people up and indeed it often was seen to be the cause of serious street violence.
GP: The Mangrove was used for target practice on the part of Notting Hill Police. It was an extraordinary phenomenon where there was a tolerance of fabrication of evidence, of planting people and there were two successive prosecutions of Frank Crichlow, who was the owner of The Mangrove, in 1979 and 1989 which were like repeat performances of each other. In fact, we called a senior former head of Notting Hill Police station as a witness, a defence witness, who said in the second trial the perception in the police canteen was that the score was Mangrove: 1 Notting Hill Police: 0 and that there had to be a revenge match. The revenge match involved the planting of Frank Crichlow with heroin and evidence given by more than sixty police officers who were cross-examined into the ground and Frank Crichlow was acquitted.
HK: Did you feel that you were engaging with racism?
GP: It was racism. It was racism deploying the strongest weapon that the state has which is the use, the claimed use of the law and yet a total distortion, destruction of the law by it’s deployment through brutality and falsification. In the end perhaps it was rather like a war in a sense. The triumphant victories that there were in court were like set-piece battles.
HK: Gareth, one of the other major areas where you did a great deal of work was around the miners’ strike in the 80’s doing many cases involving allegations of rioting on the picket lines at Orgreave.
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HK: One of the barristers who was involved in the case instructed by you was Michael Mansfield.
Michael: She’s works in a very dedicated way such that the person who is being served by her recognises that there is no length to which she will not go to ensure that people get a fair hearing. She is a very committed and deeply empathetic with the human predicament whatever it happens to be.
HK: Empathetic with the human predicament of the people that you were acting for. Because you’re absolutely not of that background. What was it that opened that door into the lives of miners?
GP: Well, the whole of the miners’ strike that whole year was of a community en bloc made a suspect community. Every aspect of the law being used to arrest people, impose bail conditions on them that prevented them from continuing to picket regardless of the quality of the evidence on which people were being charged. But the culmination of that I think was on the eighteenth of June at Orgreave which was thirty years ago. And I think there were ninety arrested on that day in Orgreave of whom seventy were charged with riot and then the rest with unlawful assembly. And they commenced with the first trial of twelve of those charged with riot. But what they had not factored in was that they had to fabricate the whole of the evidence because they had simply seized people as if they were prisoners of war and then had to make up evidence that would fit into a conventional criminal trial.
HK: They were all found not guilty and it was generally accepted as I understand it that the evidence had been fabricated.
GP: Yes. It was a complete rout. The prosecution had to drop the case after forty-eight days of prosecution evidence. It never got to the defence. And so officers two-by-two had come into the witness box and said they arrested someone for throwing stones or whatever it was only to be confronted with a photograph to show that they had never been near that particular man. It was a spectacular victory for the miners. But – in that whole year in which they’d awaited trial – all of those men had feared that they would go to prison for life, had been prevented from picketing and so to that extent one has to question now: Who’s was the victory?
HK: The Orgreave trial is one of those famous markers and of course linked to a very political period of great significance in the post-war period. What your critics say is that it shows that you’re motivated by a political agenda.
GP: Does it matter either way? I don’t think that any defence lawyer would think of their work as somehow being usurped by their own agenda. The agenda is the agenda that’s set by the state when it prosecutes someone. If the agenda set by the state is a political one that inevitably overwhelms the case from start to finish. One can see it so clearly. The miners’ strike as a whole was one example which is: you have made a whole community suspect. One can see it happen again and again in this country – that the West Indian community in Notting Hill was made such a suspect community. And it’s frequently said the whole of the Irish community over twenty-five or thirty years was similarly criminalised. And it’s said now that the Muslim community in this country is en bloc made suspect, too. Now the question is: If the agenda is set who’s setting the agenda?
HK: I’d like to go back to the Irish period – it’s one where you and I worked quite a lot on cases and I remember particularly working with you on the Guildford Four appeal although you were acting for a different client. And your client in that case was Gerry Conlon. And by that stage he, and indeed my own client, Paul Hill, had served fifteen years in prison all they way through denying that they had been involved in the the Guildford and Woolwich bombings – all the way insisting on their innocence. How did you eventually crack the case?
GP: The case was cracked by a whole variety of contributions of which an essential one was Gerry Conlon himself who shouted and campaigned and wrote and hectored and bullied and reached out to the great and the good. And he should have been, notwithstanding a coerced confession, he should have been never charged – or if charged soon acquitted – because he had a cast iron alibi and the police buried that for fifteen years. But in the end, perhaps rather like the Orgreave case or the Mangrove case or the parallel case of Birmingham, the police were undone by their own fabrication. They were undone because some of them had left notes which were clearly altered which were found in police vaults, never shredded. So it almost doesn’t matter in a case what accidental piece of leverage there is. It doesn’t matter. It’s the facilitation of that that is key…
HK: …But, I really do want to press you on the fact that you, with great humility, spread the story of the victory against these injustices. But you were the person who spent the hours and hours and hours going through material buried in a vault in a police station looking at every scrap and who found eventually the vindicating alibi witness statement that unraveled the whole of that case. And the concern that many people in the legal world have today is that the opportunities and the possibilities for lawyers to do that work is becoming less possible. That we actually are reducing the numbers of lawyers and the possible ways that could be open to people to uncover miscarriages of justice because legal aid is disappearing, law firms like your own are closing down because they can’t survive. How do we create further Gareth Peirces?
GP: Well, you wouldn’t want to do that. However, I think lawyers are themselves at fault in this in that we don’t sufficiently explain the work that needs to be done for people. The people we represent have no voice themselves and we’re just not energetic enough or sustained enough in our efforts to insure that their rights are upheld. And lawyers are always thought of as avaricious and ambitious and thought of as often indifferent to the plight of the people they represent. Lawyers are thought of as being…
HK: …Money grubbing and fat cats and…
GP: …but also exploitative of other people’s misfortune. And so the focus ought to be not on the plight of lawyers as a disappearing breed but the needs of defendants or people needing legal representation.
HK: One of the people we’ve spoken to is the great prosecuting barrister Sir John Nutting.
Sir John: I’ve got great admiration for Gareth Peirce. She’s an old sparring partner as the solicitor for many defendants whom I prosecuted including a number of IRA suspects. All her geese were swans, of course. But she always represented her clients to the very best of her ability. She has great integrity although was always terribly earnest and serious. The prosecuting team in one case had a bet once as to who could be the first to make her crack a smile during the trial. I won but it took me several days. She’s a lovely person and completely dedicated to her profession.
HK: A lot of this stuff you’re describing is pretty grim.
GP: It’s grim but if you’re representing people this is not personal this is just the case. Because we’re in an adversarial system whether you like it or not you’re fighting a war on behalf of people and with fellow lawyers. You of course have a unity of cause. You of course are in a situation where gallows humour is the order of the day and there is richness in your encounters every day that can bring joy, of course.
HK: As with the Guildford Four the defendants in the parallel Birmingham Six case all had their convictions quashed but not before they’d served sixteen years for crimes they hadn’t committed. Both Paddy Hill and Johnny Walker have spoken of their incredible indebtedness to you for your efforts in securing their freedom.
Paddy Hill said this to us:
Paddy: From the first time I met her back in the early 80’s when I got her to come and see me and take on my case she’s been absolutely amazing. If we hadn’t’ve gotten Gareth Peirce I don’t think we’d be out on the street today. We would probably still be in prison. She’s been with us every step of the way even after we got out when things weren’t going well for us Gareth was always there to pick me up. And you know what? They cloned Dolly the sheep. Well I tell you what, if they can clone Dolly the sheep please, please clone Gareth Peirce because we could do with a thousand more like her in the law society and the judicial system. She’s absolutely amazing!
HK: Johnny Walker said he couldn’t believe it when you turned up at Long Lartin to visit him on Christmas Eve. When he said you should be at home with your family you said that he was part of your family now. You actually made room in your house on more than one occasion for people who had been freed from prison but had nowhere to go. It’s that business about the boundary thing I mean basically your clients become so much a part of your life.
GP: Nothing in life is pre-planned. If a woman comes out of prison who’s been there for eighteen years and has nowhere to go then if you happen to have an extra bed that’s a pretty good use for it I would say.
HK: Yeah. But it must take an incredible toll on you!
GP: I think there may be a misunderstanding of who is the fortunate recipient here. I think that’s the misunderstanding.
HK: You were describing that that sort of hallmark that’s been there really in all of your work which is that sense of people in particular communities become the butt of social outrage. And we saw it around the race issues you were talking about, and we saw it – you described the mining community and that whole era of the strike, the business of the Irish community, and you mentioned yourself that that is now been visited on the Muslim in your view. You’ve been very involved in recent times in sort of post 9/11 law and order issues – that whole business of the “war on terror”. You acted for Guantánamo Bay detainees when they didn’t have any access to law at all when you first took the cases on – it was about getting law into that place.
GP: You do think sometimes that society learns lessons. But it isn’t so. And all there is is the ability to be constantly alert that all the danger signals are there for what happened before.
HK: I mean certainly you were involved with the Belmarsh cases of people being detained without trial. A kind of…
GP: …Internment all over again having said it would never be used again in this country we lock people up indefinitely without trial. And our government lawyers argued in addition that the government should be allowed to rely upon evidence that derived from torture.
HK: I know you were involved in that case and that was a seminal case not just for here in Britain but it’s actually looked to by jurisdictions around the world about the whole issue of torture and its implications for justice and proper trials.
GP: But in the twenty-first century we’re having to argue that it shouldn’t be used and it wasn’t lawful against our government’s lawyers.
HK: But this is the hard stuff because of course people feel the fear and terror of bombings in their cities and are fearful for their children going about their daily lives and so the gut response of the public-at-large is to want to see people locked up.
GP: There are an awful lot of factors missing here. One is education of each other’s communities. Another is comprehension of each others’ religion. Another is intelligent dialogue about politics. Another is understanding of countries where the dissidents are tortured and “disappeared” by dictators whom this country supports. There is a craving amongst intelligent, informed members of all communities to have some comprehension of each other, to have some dialogue, some understanding. And it’s just plain missing.
HK: Gareth, one of the things that people always ask any of us who defend in difficult cases: How can you believe people? How do you know your client is innocent? You’ve described the business of people being innocent. How do you know you that your clients are innocent?
GP: Well, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to get to grips very quickly when you meet someone…
HK: …But not all of your clients can be innocent. I mean, not all of our clients are innocent.
GP: I think what you have to think is that the law exists as a bottom line safety net in which those persons who are accused by the state have a right to put their case. And much of the battle of recent years is that those accused haven’t even been told what the case is against them. They are being detained and either deported or dealt with under a control order on the basis of completely secret evidence. And so many of the battles of people who are said in law to have a presumption of innocence have been even more basic to know what’s the case against me so that I can answer it? And so I think it’s wrong to perhaps think that a lawyer to be doing their job has to be judge and jury in relation to someone’s innocence or the reverse.
HK: Someone who has watched your work at close quarters is the journalist and author Victoria Britton who has written extensively about the treatment of terrorist suspects in this country.
Victoria: I’ve known Gareth for ten years working on some very hard cases. She’s like a terrier – she never gives up. Some people go the extra mile. Gareth goes the extra fifty miles. I’ve never met another lawyer who begins to match her complete commitment to justice and who shows such inexhaustible kindness and loyalty to her clients. Also, she’s built a team of younger lawyers who completely share her ethics and work with her helping some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.
HK: I mean, people have tried to get you to recognise the special role that you’ve played, Gareth. I mean you were to be honoured in the 1999 Honours List, you were offered a CBE and at first you accepted it for your services to justice but then you re-thought it and you wrote back declining it. Why? Why are you so reluctant to receive recognition?
GP: Well, that was all a letter I thought I’d sent declining it. They said they didn’t have it so I had to send another one. That was embarrassing.
HK: But why are you so reluctant to see that the role you’ve played as special?
GP: It isn’t that. It’s that I think lawyers shouldn’t profit from the misfortune of others. And by profit I don’t necessarily mean economically. I think lawyers inappropriately act as a lightening rod for attention and sometimes it’s easier to just keep working undercover.
HK: Gareth Peirce, thank you very much indeed. (ends)