When I heard on the radio this morning about the collapse of Public Interest Lawyers and saw the crowing headlines in some of the right-wing newspapers I remembered that PIL’s boss, Phil Shiner, had appeared on PJ Harvey’s act of assault-and-battery on the Today programme back in early 2014. At that point he was embroiled in the case which has led to his firm’s downfall, the claim that a number of Iraqi insurgents had not been lawfully killed in a military engagement in 2004 during the Second Iraq War, but were in fact murdered and mutilated while detained by British forces, although on the programme itself he was mainly talking about torture and mistreatment. John Humphrys gave him quite a hard time, as a journalist should, bringing up allegations which have proven not without some foundation, that PIL went hunting for claims of mistreatment against UK troops. In 2009 the High Court found that the Ministry of Defence had indeed investigated the claims of murder inadequately; but the subsequent public enquiry, named Al-Sweady after one of the young men who died, concluded at the end of last year that there was no basis for the claims and that the complainants were politically motivated. At that point the bubble burst: the Legal Aid Foundation removed its funding from PIL and another law firm which was representing Iraqi detainees, Leigh Day, and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is now investigating both companies, as well as Phil Shiner personally. The questions centre on whether PIL and Leigh Day did indeed scout around for Iraqis willing to allege that British troops had mistreated them, and whether, as seems to be the case, PIL even made upfront payments to complainants ‘in advance of’ compensation settlements. The mass of over a thousand mistreatment cases on PIL’s books will now, likely, vanish.
It’s an ugly business. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that PIL brought to light the appalling death of Baha Mousa at the hands of the British Army in 2003, about which there is no doubt, and for which case Mr Shiner was applauded by Liberty and the Law Society. Neither should people overlook the Al-Sweady enquiry’s conclusion that Iraqi detainees were indeed maltreated in exactly the same ways that eventually led to the death of Baha Mousa, even if the most lurid accusations were untrue.
‘You’re making a good living at this, aren’t you?’ John Humphrys challenged Mr Shiner on Today. He doesn’t, it seems to me, look as though that’s his motivation. He looks to me like an awkward bugger, a belligerent and unreasonable fellow at least as far as his work is concerned. I was put rather in mind of the collapse of Kids Company and its parallel sucking-in of taxpayers’ money to do profoundly good work which never quite achieved what it was supposed to. I was also put in mind of the thought that sometimes occurs to me, that it's only unreasonable people who ever really achieve anything.