The Gazette’s Legal Personality of the Year reflects on a career spent holding the authorities to account.
Elkan Abrahamson’s caseload over the last 30 years seems designed to provoke controversy. It has encompassed arguing for prisoners to have access to voting, condoms and artificial insemination, and defending rioters and encouraging them to sue the police. Twenty-four years on, he also continues to act for families of victims of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died at an FA Cup semi-final match.
So who is this man who appears to relish stirring the indignation of middle England? Abrahamson is a partner and head of prison law at Liverpool firm Broudie Jackson Canter. He is also the winner of the 2013 Law Society Gazette Legal Personality of the Year award, which he received from Law Society president Nicholas Fluck on 22 October.
Starting with the earliest of his controversial cases, Abrahamson tells the Gazette about his work arising from the 1981 Toxteth riots. Toxteth was – and is – an underprivileged area of Liverpool with high unemployment and poor housing stock. In 1981, it was a ghetto in all but name, with a large population of African-Caribbean residents who rarely ventured out of the district.
Abrahamson says: ‘Resentment had been growing for years over the way the police treated members of the community with what many saw as overt racism. Stop-and-search powers under the Public Order Act were, in many people’s eyes, routinely abused and most black people would not go into the city centre for fear of being arrested. There was a sense that the police could abuse their powers with impunity.’
This was the incendiary atmosphere pervading Toxteth when, on 3 July 1981, a young black man was arrested by police for allegedly stealing a motorbike which he owned. The incident sparked a riot that was to continue, off and on, until 28 July. One disabled man was killed by a police vehicle, 468 police officers were injured and around 500 people – black and white – were arrested during the riots, which also saw 70 buildings destroyed by fire and CS gas used for the first time outside Northern Ireland.
Abrahamson says: ‘The prevalent culture among the police before, during and after the riots was to protect one another’s backs. There would be lines of policeman all giving identical evidence. White barristers acting for young black suspects would take a pragmatic approach. They knew they couldn’t win in the face of the police’s united front and so would encourage their clients to cop a plea. We began to bring in black barristers from outside Liverpool who would encourage their clients to sue the police.’
Riots also took place in the same year in Brixton, London; Chapeltown, Leeds; Handsworth, Birmingham; and Moss Side, Manchester.
It was Abrahamson’s untiring work on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster that brought him to the attention of the Gazette award’s judges. He is still acting for 19 of the victims’ families and was at the High Court in December 2012 when it quashed the original inquest verdicts and ordered new inquests.
‘The original inquests were a charade,’ Abrahamson says. ‘They proceeded on an artificial cut-off point, and accepted pathologists’ evidence which has now been discredited and police evidence which was fabricated.’
He adds: ‘I have around 230 police statements that have been changed from what the officers initially said,’ he says. ‘There are two versions of the statements. One is what the officers wrote in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and one is what it was changed to after discussion with senior officers and solicitors representing the police.’
Abrahamson says that these changes often involved removing subjective responses to the disaster, with the word ‘chaotic’, for example, erased. The damning phrase ‘the radios didn’t work at all’ becomes ‘difficulties with hearing transmissions’, to give another example.
That seems clear cut. But how, more than 20 years after the disaster, has the truth still not come out? He replies: ‘Look at the Plebgate affair. If a senior politician and former government chief whip can be brought down by police officers, what chance do 100 ordinary people have of getting to some sort of truth?
‘And don’t forget: these were South Yorkshire police, Margaret Thatcher’s blue-eyed boys who had been so loyal during the miners’ strike. To the culture of covering one another’s back, you can add political factors contributing to a general unwillingness to uncover unsavoury truths.’
And what are those truths? ‘The cover-up of a litany of failures,’ he replies. ‘The police lost control and were slow to recognise that a disaster was brewing. There had been no investment in football grounds, with supporters having to stand in “pens”, which sound more like animal enclosures than space for people. There were inadequate safety standards and improper stewardship. The ground had no safety certificate. The allocation of tickets and the placing of fans were poor.
‘Any one of these alone might not have caused fatalities, but together the effects were disastrous.’
EDUCATION Law degree, Jerusalem; Masters in law, London School of Economics
KNOWN FOR Supporting families of the Hillsborough victims; defending prisoners’ rights
ROLES Training contract at father’s firm, Liverpool, admitted 1983; two years practising law in Hong Kong; various Liverpool civil rights firms; joined Broudie Jackson Canter five years ago
What does he hope to gain from the fresh inquests? ‘The families have struggled for so long to get at the truth and just want to know why their loved ones died. The survivors, too, were all injured in some way and are still having flashbacks and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They deserve the truth.
‘But nothing substantial is going to happen, maybe just some sacrificial lambs.’
The Hillsborough families apart, most of Abrahamson’s clients in recent years have been convicted prisoners. It was this client base, he explains, which brought him three human rights cases that proved controversial in many people’s eyes.
The first case was brought by Glen Fielding, a gay prisoner who had long campaigned for condoms to be issued by the prison service to protect against HIV infection. In 1999, the High Court ruled that a Home Office decision not to give Fielding condoms was wrong. Mr Justice Latham ruled: ‘It seems to me that whenever a prison medical officer is satisfied that a request for condoms is from a genuine homosexual who is intent on indulging in what would otherwise be unsafe sex, he should prescribe condoms.’
Abrahamson says that this ruling was ‘not that successful’ because it still depends upon prison doctors identifying that certain prisoners are gay. ‘How exactly are they supposed to do that?’ he asks.
The second case concerned murderer Kirk Dickson, who sought permission to impregnate his wife by artificial insemination while still behind bars. The authorities consistently refused him permission, saying that it was not in the public interest because one-parent families do not bring up children well and also because a violent father was not a safe role model for a child.
Dickson lost his first appeal in April 2006, whereupon Abrahamson took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This court ruled in December 2007 that Dickson’s and his wife’s article eight rights to private and family life were engaged.
Abrahamson says: ‘A custodial sentence punishes an offender primarily by removing his or her liberty, although there are other incidental punishments such as bad food and uncomfortable living conditions. The sentence doesn’t include setting out to punish the offender’s family by association. In this case, Mrs Dickson wanted to have a child while she was still sufficiently fertile to do so. She would have been 51 by the time her husband was released from jail and conception would have been unlikely.’
The third prisoners’ rights case was the now notorious appeal by John Hirst for all convicts to be allowed to vote. It is notorious, at least in part, because the Strasbourg court’s ruling that imposing a blanket ban on prisoner voting was unlawful made prime minister David Cameron claim to ‘feel sick’. His nausea was premature: although the court so ruled back in 2005, 2013 is drawing to a close without the UK showing any willingness to amend its rules.
All that is required of the government is to set a tariff allowing minor offenders to vote and disqualifying serious offenders. Abrahamson says that Italy was able to amend its rules in this way ‘without the world ending’, so why cannot the UK show similar flexibility? He says: ‘There are positive implications to allowing prisoners the vote. It might make them more determined to become responsible citizens with a stake in who governs them. Perhaps they could also be given civics classes while inside so that they understand how democracy works.’
So what does the future hold for Abrahamson? For the first time in the interview, he is less than upbeat. ‘Legal aid has been emasculated and I would like to retire,’ he replies. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, but after his last session of chemotherapy almost a year ago he appears to be in the clear. ‘It’s now a matter of wait and see,’ he says.
‘My only clients now are the Hillsborough ones and I want to see that case through to the end. I’ve got a team of 24 people working with me and it’s a joy to see so many young people, from all over the country, committed to the rule of law. The Home Office has promised funding, but the figures have still not been approved.’
It’s a case of Dracula in charge of the blood bank, then? Abrahamson smiles and shrugs.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer