INTERVIEW: ‘Justice does, in spite of the insurmountable obstacles, prevail,’ reflects Tony Gifford. The veteran human rights lawyer, who moved to Jamaica in 1989, is talking specifically about the issue of the UK having to pay reparations for its role in the slave trade.
Earlier this month Portia Simpson Miller, the Jamaican prime minister, raised the issue to a visiting David Cameron, just hours after the he arrived to the tune of a military band playing God Save the Queen.
After more than 50 years at the Bar, Lord Anthony Gifford QC’s biography serves as a pretty comprehensive list of left wing causes célèbres. Notable cases include the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four; he chaired inquiries into Broadwater Farm and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool; and represented the family of James Wray at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.
He was also founder of the first law centre, North Kensington. Then there is his international work which includes his involvement in the anti apartheid campaign in South Africa, support for the liberation movement in Mozambique and latterly fighting for peoples’ rights in the Caribbean.
Tony Gifford is, to use that well-worn phrase, a radical lawyer. He has been a leading advocate for the reparations movement for over 20 years. The lawyer takes the long view.
‘I started campaigning against the Portuguese occupation of Mozambique in 1968,’ he tells me. ‘I never knew that in 1975 Mozambique would be free or – for that matter – that in 1994 there would be a democratic election in South Africa. But they both happened. I think it will happen here too.’
A product of imperialist Britain
Lord Anthony Gifford – the sixth Baron Gifford of St Leonard’s – makes for an unlikely rebel. As a young man – schooled at Winchester College, followed by Cambridge – he reacted against the suffocating constraints of privilege in spectacular fashion and embarked upon a career as champion of the underdog.
In his memoirs – The Passionate Advocate (Arawak publications, 2007) – he lists his distinguished lineage in the following unforgiving style. The first Baron Gifford was the ‘son of a poor Devonshire Draper’ who, in a remarkable act of social mobility, won a scholarship to read law and went on to become Solicitor General, Attorney General and finally Master of the Rolls before dying at the age of 47. But he blotted his copybook by prosecuting the Cato Street Conspirators following their attempt to blow up the cabinet while they were dining.
The second Baron was ‘only memorable for being a master of foxhounds’, the third ‘fought for the expansion of the British Empire’ (and ‘was awarded the Victoria Cross for his exploits in subduing the Ashanti people’); the fourth was ‘a colonial administrator in Western Australia’; and his father’s father was ‘a close associate of Cecil Rhodes who lost his arm in the war against the Matabele in South Africa’.
Gifford ends this formidable family tree, thus: ‘They were all the products of the imperialist Britain which I was coming to hate.’
When I ask him if he misses sitting in the House of Lords, he laughs: ‘No. One of the things I’m quite proud of is that in my last speech in 1996, I asked if Her Majesty’s Government would pay reparations to descendants of African and Caribbean slaves.’ It was, he says, a good parting shot. The debate is cited by activists to this day.
Gifford, as he puts it, ‘happily voted myself out of existence’ in 1999 when Tony Blair passed a law excluding hereditary peers from automatic membership. In his book, he quotes his contribution to a debate on reform of the upper chamber. ‘I abominate the House and I am ashamed it should be part of the British government,’ he began.
‘The Act of 1999, which abolished me, was meant to be a temporary measure. Of course, 16 years later we’re having cronies still being appointed,’ he says.
What’s it like practicing law in the Caribbean? ‘It is a real education to work in a country where the public resources are so much less per head than they are in an advanced country. To be in a Caribbean country, you see how every public service is under terrible strain – education, health and justice.’ But he adds: ‘There is a very dedicated legal profession – and a real desire to see justice done.’ Gifford, who is a member of the Doughty Street barristers’ chambers in the UK, set up his firm Gifford Thompson & Bright in 1991 in Kingston.
Certainly, working in Jamaica puts the crisis in our own legal aid system into perspective. ‘There is a legal aid scheme of sorts – but it is minimal,’ the barrister replies. ‘The real legal aid that I depend on in my criminal practice comes from families. There is tremendous solidarity shown by family members, particularly those overseas living in the US.’
As founder of the first law centre Tony Gifford was a pioneer in promoting access to justice for the poor and the vulnerable. North Kensington Law Centre opened in 1970 in a butcher’s shop at the north end of Portobello Road and, in doing so, spawned a movement. Some 13 opened between 1973 and 1974 and there were to be more than 60 in total.
Michael Zander QC wrote in 1978 the law centre movement was ‘nothing less than the introduction of a new public service to operate alongside, and in supplement to, the private profession’ to provide advice to a section of the population ‘previously ignored’.
What was North Kensington like in 1970? Gifford replies: ‘It was the era of Rachman. There was intense racism from the Notting Hill police, poor local authority accommodation and exploitation of workers.’ A 1974 World in Action documentary (Law Shop) captured a week in the life of the law centre. It revealed the grim reality of an impoverished community living in the shadow of the A40 West Way that had only just cut a swathe through their terraces. The narrator called it a ‘slum area’.
‘The whole point of the law is to have teeth,’ says Gifford. ‘It is not just about appealing to moral persuasion. It must provide effective remedies through the court system. When the North Kensington law centre started, landlords found that they would evict a tenant in the morning, then have an injunction slapped on them by the afternoon and the tenant could be back by the evening.’
The centre instituted a duty solicitor rota at Notting Hill police station. ‘Someone could be arrested at midnight and an hour later, the lawyer would be knocking on the door of the station,’ he recalls. ‘The very presence of lawyers acted as a deterrent to misbehavior.’
‘The message was very simple: justice is for all – and, in particular, for those with slender means because they are more likely to be exploited. There are simple truths that should be self-evident. Yet they are being questioned by the powers that be.’
Of course, the Coalition government’s legal aid cuts of April 2013 removed ‘social welfare law’ from the legal aid scheme and have devastated the law centre movement.
‘It’s appalling,’ says Gifford. ‘I am amazed that the attack should come from these Conservatives – for all their faults in the 1970s, they did believe in the rule of law,’ says the barrister.
Tony Gifford calls the Human Rights Act ‘the most progressive and far-reaching piece of legislation passed by Tony Blair’s government’.
What would he say to those politicians who want to abolish it? ‘We must have access to the courts and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights so as to maintain the standards of human rights which became essential after the disaster of the Second World War.’
‘If you allow popular feeling to go unchecked – and politicians are always encouraged to do a popular thing rather than the right thing – then only effective human rights legislation can stop that.’
The lawyer regards the prospect of withdrawing from the European Convention as ‘extraordinary’. ‘We would be putting ourselves on a par with Russia and other countries that want to opt out. For a government meant to stand for the rule of law that would look very bad on the world stage.’
In The Passionate Advocate, Gifford asserts that ‘the age of the radical law student is over’. Does he still believe that? ‘Hah. In the next revision of the book I might revise that,’ he says, but he adds – disapprovingly – that ‘younger lawyers today seem to be more career-oriented’.
‘There is a danger that human rights is seen as a business – but that is better than no attention being paid to human rights at all.’
I am guessing Gifford found the idea of writing his memoirs a bit self-indulgent, so his book is pitched towards exhorting a new generation of lawyers to fight the good fight. ‘I want to fire attorneys with the zeal to be people’s lawyers rather than business lawyers or the state’s lawyers,’ he wrote.
I quote a 1999 New Statesman profile by Marcel Berlins (The Radical Lawyers). Berlins wrote: ‘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.’
Gifford laughs. ‘I think that rather overstates the case.’ He resists the label of radical lawyer. He says: ‘What I used to tell younger lawyers was that this label of radical lawyer will get you nowhere – what will get you somewhere is to be master of the facts and the law. You have to do your research and know the law better than the other parties – above all know your facts.’
The lawyer recalls a judge at Bloomsbury and Marylebone county court in a housing disrepair case, once saying: ‘I think you will find if Lord Gifford has pleaded this case, then it is likely to be accurate.’ ‘We would actually go to the houses and make note of the state of the property,’ he says. ‘We took judges there. Your success is not measured by the strength of your principles but by your successes in court.’
On the Birmingham six, Gifford reckons the most important work he did was not in England but in Washington. ‘I was asked to present their case to a hearing of the human rights caucus in the US Congress and that led very quickly to a reopening of the case. The people that the British government don’t want breathing down their neck is the US Congress.’
Jamaican by osmosis
What impact does the antipathy on the part of British politicians to the Human Rights Act have on the Jamaican legal community? ‘It makes us glad first of all that we have a written constitution,’ he says adding that it is ‘subject to one or two blemishes’ including the anti-sodomy law. ‘The Charter of rights is there for everyone to use. Increasingly Britain is suffering from the lack of a written constitution.’
The Caribbean island remains one of the most homophobic countries in the world. The Jamaican constitution has a savings clause so that laws relating to sexual offences cannot be challenged under the charter. A young activist Javed Jaghai last year withdrew a legal challenge to its anti-sodomy law because of concerns over his safety. ‘That was very sad. It was a courageous lawsuit,’ Gifford says.
The lawyer is reminded of representing Jeff Dudgeon in a challenge to Northern Ireland’s buggery law before the European Court of Human Rights back in 1983 which led to a change in the law. But public opinion is shifting, notes Gifford. This year the LGBT community held its first gay pride in Kingston.
In his autobiography, he mentions his pleasure at being described as ‘Jamaican by osmosis’ by a talk show host. I ask him, on his visits to the UK, does he see a country more at ease with itself?
The barrister replies by saying that he sees ‘a xenophobia that is taking a different form’. He talks of the government’s ‘paralysis in relation to the migration horror’.
‘These people are not just being persecuted but in many cases they are being subject to a persecution to which we have contributed by our own illegal actions,’ he says. ‘We have to take our proper share of refugees.’