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TRANSFORMATION IN LAW AND ADVOCACY: ADVOCACY FOR WHOM AND WHAT KİND OF? Presentation at the Paris Symposium for Ebru Timtik, 3 April 2021


Bill Bowring, Professor of Law, University of London, Barrister of England and Wales, President of the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights.

We are here to commemorate the tragic death in prison of Ebru Timtik, on hunger strike in protest against the absence of a fair trial for her in Turkey. She was a brave fighting lawyer.

Here is my answer to the question for this session.

I am a revolutionary socialist who happens to have become qualified as a lawyer. I seek to use my skills as far as possible in the class struggle, especially struggles for self-determination. I have written a lot about this.

So my own history might be of interest, to show what I mean.

I did not qualify at first as a lawyer. When I was 16-17, already a communist, I worked on a small cargo ship around West Africa and the East Coast of the USA. This opened my eyes to the reality of European colonialism in Africa, and I participated in New York in the March of a Million against the Vietnam War.

The following year, 1968, I was a protestor against the Vietnam War, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

My degree from 1967 to 1970, at Kent University, was in Philosophy. I was a revolutionary socialist, first in the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation, and for a period in 1972, the high point of the class struggle in England, I was a full time revolutionary in the Workers Revolutionary Party, organising coal miners.

In England it is possible to qualify as a lawyer in just two years, which I did from 1973-1974.

I lived for 15 years in Brixton, South London, from 1974, and served as a volunteer adviser in the Brixton Advice Centre. I was “called to the Bar” in 1974, and in my first cases as a barrister I represented housing squatters, and campaigned against the proposed law criminalising squatting.

In 1978 I was elected as a Labour Councillor in Lambeth which includes Brixton. There were several black councillors, and a black Mayor.

I was involved in the Brixton Riots in 1981, when Brixton was under a state of siege from the police, and in 1985 when the police shot a black woman in bed.

In 1986 I and my Council colleagues were prosecuted by Mrs Thatcher for “wilful misconduct”, for taking illegal action against her policies, fined £160,000, and banned from holding public office for 5 years. We raised the money through the Labour Party and trade unions.

Since that time I have been active in the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

From 1986 to 1990 I represented victims of police misconduct: wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, torture, malicious prosecution. These cases were mostly cases of racist attacks on black people and the working class.

In 1988 I was sent on a mission to Palestine, and first saw the relevance of human rights law and the law of armed conflict. I have returned to Palestine many times.

Since 1991 I have been closely involved in the struggle against the British occupation of Northern Ireland, in the armed conflict which lasted from 1969 to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Marx and Engels strongly supported the fight for Irish independence. I fight for the reunification of the Island of Ireland.

I began teaching, at the University of East London, in a working class district, in 1990. Starting in 1992, I worked as a volunteer with the Kurdish Human Rights Centre, and represented Kurdish applicants at the European Court of Human Rights: Özgur Gundem v Turkey, Aktas v Turkey, ipek v Turkey and many others. Since 2000 I have been representing Chechen and other victims of Russian violations of the ECHR.

I agree with Marx and Engels that there can be no socialist law, nor can there be socialist legal theory. The law is made by the capitalist state, and is an instrument of the ruling class in the class struggle.

Workers can and must, however, advance legal demands. In their time this was the fight for a ten hour day, to be enforced by law. To do this they need the services of competent lawyers

In my opinion lawyers cannot be a revolutionary vanguard, but there can be revolutionaries who are lawyers, just as there can be revolutionaries who are accountants, or doctors. Or even capitalists, like Engels. But I am not sure what a “revolutionary lawyer” would be. Probably a bad lawyer.

The workers or any people involved in struggle against capitalism, or suffering persecution or injustice, may need a competent lawyer. That is what we try to offer in the Haldane Society. We played a particularly important role in the Great Miners Strike of 1984-5. Now we are involved in many struggles – there is resistance all over Britain.

But I don’t think law can be transformative or emancipatory. That is the role of the working class in the class struggle. Lawyers are competent technicians, serving the working class.

From → My posts

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