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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March 2004, 16:24 GMT
Profile: Gareth Peirce
By Andrew Walker
BBC News Profiles Unit

Gareth Peirce
Gareth Peirce: Radical solicitor with a formidable track record
Representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes is just the latest in a series of high-profile cases championed by the civil rights solicitor, Gareth Peirce.

In a career of more than 30 years, she has appeared for, among others, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the families of the victims of the Marchioness river boat disaster.

Her face, and her many past glories, are known in courtrooms throughout the land. When Gareth Peirce takes a case, journalists and lawyers' ears prick up.

The scourge of much of the legal establishment, Peirce's passionate advocacy and attention to detail have brought spectacular results. She is an unreconstructed, old-fashioned, radical lawyer.

"Transformed" criminal justice

Gareth Peirce's background seems a world away from the causes she today embraces. A product of Cheltenham Ladies' College, alma mater of many an upper class British gel, she studied at Oxford University before working in the United States.

It was here, in the 1960s, that she experienced at first hand the heady campaign for civil rights. The ideals which were embedded in Gareth Peirce at that time have been the bedrock of her subsequent career.

Returning to the UK, she took a postgraduate course at the London School of Economics before being recruited as a solicitor by the radical law firm run by Benedict Birnberg.

Camp X Ray, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Peirce has represented UK detainees in Camp X Ray
Birnberg - who also counted Paul Boateng, now a Cabinet minister, among his team - gave his solicitors freedom of choice over which cases they pursued.

Later Birnberg would say that Peirce had "transformed the criminal justice scene in this country almost single-handedly".

Peirce soon made her mark, representing two Luton men serving life imprisonment for murder.

This is how her career could have remained, certainly worthy but also virtually anonymous, had it not been for the Guildford Four.

Big-screen portrayal

In 1989, after emotionally laying out her case that the 1974 conviction of four Irishmen for participating in an IRA bombing campaign was unsafe, she saw her clients walk free in one of the most dramatic moments in British legal history.

The case of the Guildford Four made headlines around the world and was given the Hollywood treatment in the film, In The Name Of The Father.

Peirce, an intensely private person, was not impressed with her portrayal by the actress Emma Thompson, who received an Oscar nomination for her efforts. The film itself was criticised for what some saw as inaccuracies in the story.

Since then, Peirce's name has been synonymous with civil rights cases.

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson played Peirce on film
Her workaholic attitude and fastidious attention to detail have paid dividends, whether in the case of Judith Ward, another alleged IRA bomber, released after her conviction was quashed, or Frank Johnson, set free after serving 26 years for murder.

She has also campaigned against the detention of striking miners during the 1980s and, more recently, was on the legal team which represented the former MI5 operative, David Shayler.

Today, with the so-called War on Terror moving into full-swing, Gareth Peirce finds herself defending a number of terrorist suspects detained indefinitely in the UK as well as those who have just returned to the country from Guantanamo Bay.

Her views are as radical as ever, and she berates politicians for agreeing to what she sees as unacceptable measures since September 11. "Say terrorism and it excuses everything," she says.


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