Stephen Lawrence – One Lawyer’s View…

Maya Sikand with some personal reflections on the Stephen Lawrence murder trial

It seems to me important to say something about the prosecution of Stephen Lawrence’s killers and the jury’s verdicts. Not because everyone is talking about it right now but because I began my legal career some 15 years ago talking about it and almost nothing else. Barristers fromGarden Courtplayed a significant role in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry which was announced in 1997 – with Sir William Macpherson’s report completed in 1999. Ian Macdonald QC andRajiv Menon(now QC) were instructed on behalf of Duwayne Brookes whilstCourtenay Griffiths(now QC) and I were instructed on behalf of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) (although in the end unforeseen circumstances meant that Courtenay was unable to do the case). It was where I conducted my first ever cross-examination. We sat through many months of evidence, some fascinating, some heart-breaking, some disappointing. All of us learnt lessons – both political and personal. By all of us I mean all of us lawyers, Sir William Macpherson himself, the media circus, the police and the general public. Nothing has been the same since on many levels. Ironically most of us human rights lawyers were against Machpherson’s recommendation that the double jeopardy should be re-written. It would, we thought, be used against the very community that the police had historically failed to protect.

And here we are now celebrating justice. Somewhat uncomfortably. Because it is that very change in the law that allowed one of the suspects (Gary Dobson) to be prosecuted and convicted all these years later. Although not the first to be convicted under the 2003 Act (which came into force in 2005), it is both ironic and significant that Dobson’s failed prosecution resulted in a change in the law that was ultimately used against him. Have I changed my mind about this law? It is worth remembering that the failed prosecution in Stephen Lawrence’s case was brought privately by anguished parents and many have said it was a political act; a prosecution brought in the knowledge that it was bound to fail. But it kept the case alive.

Like the rest of the nation I am delighted that Stephen’s parents have finally got some justice. But have I changed my mind about the abrogation of the double jeopardy rule? No, I think not. Despite the relatively high statutory test the DPP has to satisfy to re-try an acquitted person, the new law also gives the police wide powers to re-investigate and re-arrest acquitted persons with the DPP’s permission – without limit of time. In my view, it remains a draconian law despite the long overdue conviction of a racist murderer.

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