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What happened to the radical lawyers?


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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…

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).

15 years old yesterday, this piece by Marcel Berlins in The New Statesman, but a thought-provoking and worthwhile read today. Hat tip @TimGClaw:

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


13 Responses

  1. I agree wholehartedly about radical lawyers. I think they have one of the most important roles in society, and I agree it takes courage. Luckily I still meet many in spite of Government machinations in getting rid of the likes of RMJ. Some of the younger ones have been hard at work trying to save legal aid – but I do also note that it becomes ever harder to také up difficult or unpopular cases.

  2. I welcome this good and provocative artcicle.
    What happened to so called radical lawyers? The same as to many of similar proffession, free thinkers all around the world, who have been forcibly pushed out from the scene and all importnat posts, made afraid of thinking publicly, backamiled, bribed, exposed to unfair criticsm…So, who did it? those mediocrities and so called intelectuals who are today presiding in the Chambers, Courts, Goverment, and of course serving the bosses for little money..but, dont be naive: this is not the end…it will be worse!

    1. The Article provides its own answer: “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.”

      We no longer need radical lawyers to represent terrorists: it is drummed into immigration advisers at Ethics courses that it is their duty to do so (as I discovered today, not that I was under any illusion otherwise).

      What happened to the radical lawyers? They won!

  3. The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

    Dante Alighieri.

  4. I agree, we need more lawyers with guts. I was at Taylor House today before this Judge with CBE, I believe some of you now can guess who he is. I was dealing with the appeal of a parent with a Contact Order and the HOPO told him to dismiss the appeal as they believe the Order is only to facilitate the visa, and that there is no relationship with the child. I got so passionate in my submissions, and the Judge smiled, and told me that he has been a Judge before I was even born, so he will consider all “those factors.” I think we can still win cases by going beyond the Rules and the written policies.

  5. This is quite an important piece, thank you. My husband, currently doing the LPC, is a potential future radical lawyer, but he is often discouraged about his chances of getting a job as the changes in legal aid are so prohibitive.
    I hope his commitment won’t be watered down by the need to make a living.

  6. Superb and very refreshing article, Colin (and in a synchronicitous kind of way, along similar lines to a discussion I was having with other counsel today too). I guess every lawyer is on their own mission of sorts – for some it’s paying the mortgage, for others it’s making a million before they’re 40, for others it’s trying to change the world a hearing at a time.

  7. If you’re discussing radical lawyers, I suggest you watch “Terror’s Advocate”, the documentary about the French lawyer Jacques Verges, who defended numerous “terrorist” organisations, such as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang.

  8. We need radical lawyers to make perceptions change; without people pushing the boundaries and providing a different perspective we wouldn’t be able to evolve and develop as a society.

    It’s definitely about time for some more radicals to step up and try to save the justice system, although how exactly they would go about it is anyone’s guess.

    1. I am a conservative (small ‘c’), which is the opposite of a radical. I believe that change should not be made or accepted blindly (something the Home Office would be wise to consider before its umpteenth change in the Immigration Rules). In the context of immigration law, I support the ECHR and UNCRC because they are the law. It is the people who want to pull out of the ECHR and ignore the UNCRC who are the true radicals here- rightwing radicals!