Authors:Fiona Bawdon
Last updated:2023-09-18
Military precision and a lion heart
Marcia Willis-Stewart has handled some of the biggest cases of recent times – de Menezes, Duggan, Hillsborough – but the one that sticks most in her mind is of a man wrongly accused of shoplifting who wanted more than just tea and sympathy. Fiona Bawdon reports.
‘She will not just go the extra mile for you. She will run, walk and crawl the marathon for you.’
Many lawyers will have a touchstone case, one that reminds them of why they came into the justice business in the first place and keeps them fighting the good fight. For Marcia Willis-Stewart, managing partner of leading civil liberties firm Birnberg Peirce, hers came early in her legal career.
It was a case that generated no headlines and will never feature on her CV. Rather than being a cause célèbre, it involved the kind of injustice that generally goes unchallenged and unreported. She met him only briefly, but Willis-Stewart still remembers the client well: white, mid-thirties, living with his mother, wearing a raincoat – and ‘really, really upset’.
The man had turned up unannounced in her firm’s reception. She explains: ‘Wherever I work, whenever there’s something odd, I get called, because people say, “Marcia might find a way.”’ When Willis-Stewart went down to talk to him, he explained he had been in a supermarket when staff accused him of stealing, manhandled him into a cupboard and kept him there for two hours.
‘So I gave him a cup of tea and sat with him. He said he wanted to bring a claim against the supermarket and I said to him, “I am terribly sorry, what happened to you is disgusting, but this isn’t a human rights case and there’s not really anything I can do.” And he left.’
The man wasn’t so easily pacified, however. As he departed, he remonstrated with Willis-Stewart: ‘I don’t know what you people are like! You’re a human rights lawyer. I get banged up for two hours and nobody will help me. You’re the third lawyer that I’ve been to.’
It was a light bulb moment: ‘This is where I thought, hang on a minute. Why did I come into law? So I went after him and said, “Come and sit down. I will help you. You can’t pay me any money. But I will do this.”’
And so she did. It took three letters and a phone call to the supermarket head office (threatening to ‘embarrass them dreadfully’) for Willis-Stewart to secure him compensation of £2,500.
‘For me,’ she says, ‘it was a real reminder. A lesson in humanity.’
Award-winning but low-profile
The lesson that client taught has stayed with her ever since.
A late entrant to law following a successful career in local government, Willis-Stewart was a winner at this year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in recognition of her work for families bereaved in the most public and controversial of circumstances.
The LALY award brought Willis-Stewart rare recognition. Despite the high profile of her work, her default position is to avoid the spotlight, if at all possible (a characteristic she shares with her equally media-shy colleague, Gareth Peirce). She admits she even had to psych herself up ahead of the Legal Action interview. She says: ‘My family laugh, because they say all they ever see of me on television is the end of my locks, as I’m getting out of view.’
It is quite an achievement for a lawyer to keep such a low profile despite handling the most politically charged cases: Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station after being mistaken for a suicide bomber; Mark Duggan, shot dead by police in Tottenham in 2011, triggering nationwide rioting; the ongoing Hillsborough inquest, which began 25 years after the tragedy.
Michael Mansfield QC describes them as ‘the most taxing hearings I have ever faced’. He says: ‘Marcia is exceptional. Her commitment, leadership and courage in dealing with complex, sensitive issues have been clearly demonstrated in all the high-profile matters where I have worked alongside her.’
Even within the legal profession, she remains relatively unknown, but those who work with Willis-Stewart clearly hold her in the highest regard. In her LALY nomination, she was praised variously as ‘emotionally literate’, ‘an extraordinarily gifted solicitor’, ‘amiable’ and ‘calmly unflappable’. Members of the Duggan family wrote in support. A mother whose baby was saved from going into care 16 years ago, after an epic battle by Willis-Stewart to keep the infant with her in prison until she finished her sentence, said: ‘She will not just go the extra mile for you, she will run, walk and crawl the marathon with you.’
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Marcia Willis-Stewart at the Hillsborough 24th anniversary service, Anfield; and (below) with colleagues working on the case
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A reluctant role model
For someone who fears entry to the profession is increasingly determined by class and race, Marcia Willis-Stewart admits that her maintaining a studiedly low profile may have unintended consequences.
The son of an equally media-averse colleague recently nagged her about it. ‘He said, “You two don’t do any press stuff, but young black men and nonwhite young people need to know that there are black civil rights lawyers out there.” So it’s always niggling at me, when I think, oh well, I’m just going to duck the camera.’
Niggled she may be, but not enough to make her willingly face the cameras more often: ‘It makes me feel quite ill, to tell the truth.’ Instead, she decided to find another way of encouraging a broader range of entrants into the profession.
Since being based in Warrington for the Hillsborough inquest, she has formed links with a local sixth form and developed a rolling work experience programme: ‘I have two students every couple of weeks.’
Growing elitism is an issue and the entire profession should do more to avoid reinforcing existing inequality. ‘If you are saying you will only take trainees who have gone to Oxbridge, or you’ll only take trainees who come from the traditional route or paralegals who have degrees, what are you doing? You are excluding those who may have got an HND. I have paralegals here who don’t have degrees, but have since come to me and I have facilitated them doing the legal exec course. You know, many people have degrees but they’ve got no bloody personality and nothing to give. We have a responsibility to think again, especially in this time when things are going to be difficult, to make sure that we are not giving further opportunities to those who already have access to them.’
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Willis-Stewart, pictured with members of the Duggan family, was criticised for describing ‘lawful killing’ verdict as ‘perverse’
Duggan: no empty promises
Marcia Willis-Stewart was in Tottenham looking at the destruction caused by the rioting that erupted a few days after Mark Duggan’s death when his partner phoned, saying: ‘Somebody told us you are the lawyer to call.’
The Duggan family’s choice of legal representative initially caused surprise in some quarters. Stafford Scott, who co-founded the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985, the year rioting led to the murder of PC Keith Blakelock, hadn’t heard of Willis-Stewart previously and was uneasy about whether she’d be up to handling what he knew would be a politically charged case.
Once he saw her with the family, however, he changed his mind: ‘I was taken with Ms Willis-Stewart’s ability to empathise with them without making empty promises that she would not be able to deliver on.’
Willis-Stewart later attracted criticism when, in a rare appearance before television cameras, she said that the lawful killing verdict was ‘perverse’: ‘The jury found that he had no gun in his hand and yet he was gunned down. For us, that’s an unlawful killing.’
However, Scott, now a community engagement consultant, says what the critics didn’t appreciate are the pains she took to ensure fury at the decision didn’t spill over into disorder. Soon after speaking outside the inquest, Willis-Stewart spent five hours in a Tottenham church, convincing the youths who had amassed there that ‘taking the law into their own hands would not help the family or the search for truth and justice’. He adds: ‘We avoided another “riot” and I am not certain we could have done so without Ms Willis-Stewart’s input.’
One of the Hillsborough bereaved says she combines ‘military-precision-type organisation with a heart as big as a lion’. Another describes her as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Her ‘energy and passion’ have finally enabled families to obtain ‘answers to questions we have waited 26 years to hear’.
Jo Delahunty QC, who is one of the whopping 23 barristers instructed by Willis-Stewart on the Hillsborough inquest, gives a flavour of the enormity of representing such a large number of bereaved people, and the strength and delicacy Willis-Stewart brings to the task.
Delahunty says: ‘Each loved one, each bereavement, each family is unique. They have their own inquest “targets”, honed over a quarter of a century. No one but Marcia could have met and managed the grief and anger that are unleashed at times of stress. Had she not done so, unmanaged grief could have had a domino effect, whereby the families lost trust in the process, or us. I have witnessed Marcia deal with a volatile situation with speed, clarity of advice and vision.’
‘A client said, “We trust you,” and I said, “I don’t want you to trust me. I want you to challenge me every day.”’
Willis-Stewart was initially acting for 40 families via the Hillsborough Family Support Group, but as word of her spread, many others joined them: she ended up acting for the families of 75 of the 96 victims.
It’s hard to think of a more powerful tribute to Willis-Stewart, a little-known, black woman lawyer – and a Londoner to boot – than that so many white Liverpudlians with every reason to be suspicious of the entire legal profession have chosen to place their faith in her. Some 18 months into the inquest (which is likely to run at least until the end of the year), she has not had a single client jump ship.
Willis-Stewart acknowledges she wouldn’t have been seen as the families’ obvious choice. ‘It is special,’ she says. ‘I often say I feel like this is a Blues Brothers moment, that I’m on a mission from God,’ she laughs, referring to the cult film where the musicians embark on an unlikely quest to save the orphanage where they grew up.
She adds that she feels ‘ashamed and embarrassed’ at how badly the Hillsborough families were failed previously. ‘I remember one saying to me, “We’ve come to you because we trust you,” and I said, “I don’t want you to trust me. I want you to challenge me every day.”’
Willis-Stewart explains her approach to clients: ‘I say to them, “We’re in a car and you’ve asked me to be in the driving seat. You will always be in the front with me. More times, you will be driving and I will just be giving you directions.”’
The management gene
As if coping with dozens of traumatised families and handling 23 barristers wasn’t enough, Willis-Stewart had to set up a dedicated Hillsborough office on the court site in Warrington, and recruit the lawyers and support staff to run it.
Not for the first time, experience gleaned from her previous career in local government proved invaluable. ‘Deployment and management is something which is in my genes, to tell the truth. There are lots of people who can manage people and others who don’t know how.’ Having run services like meals on wheels, and deployed hundreds of carers and home helps, the demands of the case are less of a challenge than they might otherwise have been.
Willis-Stewart was, however, careful to choose barristers who were team players. Rather than just instructing them in the normal way, she interviewed them first – and explicitly mentioned the ‘E-word’.
‘I most definitely did! I mentioned ego. I said, “I know what your legal credentials are, the question is, how are you going to manage your ego?” And I’ve got a fantastic team, I have to say.’
It’s not just in Hillsborough where her local government experience has been a boon to her legal career. In the case of the prisoner whose baby was set to go into care, Willis-Stewart drew on her knowledge of social services. ‘I didn’t just run it as a simple judicial review. I challenged on the best interests of the child, the Children Act. I made the child a ward of court. I did everything outside the box to keep that child with her mother.’
She adds that the child, now aged 16, is still with the mum and plays basketball for England.
A duty to survive
Of course, as well as legal battles for clients, firms like Birnberg Peirce also have to fight for their own financial survival.
One Hillsborough barrister says that, as managing partner, much of the credit for its stability should go to her: ‘Some lawyers forget that there is a need to organise the firms that they belong to. However, unless the boring administrative tasks are undertaken, firms collapse. It appears to me that Marcia has played a key role in keeping Birnberg Peirce functioning.’
Willis-Stewart suggests there is little point in being a brilliant lawyer if you can’t also keep your firm afloat. Like it or not, the profession needs to adapt to the new demands being put on it.
‘Lawyers are taught about fighting the law,’ she says, ‘but the new battle for us is around viability. We are being priced out of the market. I know many of us are afraid of these discussions about the so-called marketplace. We shouldn’t have to call it that, but we do have to. People talk about transferable skills and transferable language, and we most definitely have to be aware of those issues.’
Failure to survive is not an option, she adds. ‘I worry about the people we don’t see, the ones who don’t come to us. There are atrocities happening on a daily basis, hourly, and the people who can come to us, come to us. But many more can’t and we should remember that.
‘We absolutely owe a duty to survive. We are committed to this work, we are committed to assisting those who need justice. We must be committed to being here.’
‘I thought, hang on a minute. Why did I come into law? So I went after him and said, “Come and sit down. I will help you.”’
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‘Put it this way, they know who’s in charge’: at this year’s LALY awards, on how she runs a team of 23 barristers
Hillsborough: ‘They are definitely not numbers’
The inquest into the deaths of the 96 people who died in the 1989 disaster has heard ‘pen portraits’ of each of the victims – descriptions of them by their families. Marcia Willis-Stewart says the portraits are one way of honouring the commitment she made to the families ‘that I would bring their loved ones to the centre of this process’.
Some of the resulting portraits are almost unbearably poignant (see below), but, as Willis-Stewart says, ‘they are not the pictures that you would have seen before. Those who died are definitely not numbers.’
• Theresa Arrowsmith, sister of Kevin and Christopher Traynor, 16 and 26 respectively when they died at Hillsborough, told the inquest she had been buying furniture with her other brother, Paul, when she first heard of the tragedy.
‘We had just purchased an outdoor table and four chairs when we heard the news of what was unfolding. At this point, we had only moved the table and two chairs to the car. We left immediately and never went back for the other two chairs.
‘I still have that said same patio set with those two chairs missing. Whenever I look at them, it reminds me that there will always be two missing chairs in the Traynor family household for the two family members who never came back.’
• Arthur Horrocks’s widow Susan’s statement was read by their son Jon.
Aged 41 when he died, Arthur’s passions from a young age were sport and music. He went to the Cavern Club in his school lunch breaks, and attended all the Liverpool games before Jon and his brother Jamie were born.
Arthur and Susan started ‘courting’ when she was 16. He worked for the Prudential and many customers rang Susan in tears when they heard of his death.
Arthur once brought home a poodle from a customer who wasn’t able to pay her bills. He paid the money off for her and the dog became ‘part of the family’.
Susan’s statement said: ‘This has been hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. But I hope it goes some way towards saying what a wonderful husband and best friend he was to me.