The lengthy battle for justice in the Stephen Lawrence murder case has changed Britain for the better, claims family solicitor Imran Khan – but there is still a long way to go in the battle against racism, he tells Enda Mullen.
In 19 years representing the Lawrence family, Imran Khan’s lowest point was when a private prosecution to bring Stephen’s killers to justice was thrown out by a judge.
“Professionally and personally it was a very dark day,” said Mr Khan. “The judge stopped the case and Stephen’s mother Doreen collapsed. We went into it feeling that if we failed there would never be a chance of getting another prosecution.”
Fast forward to January this year and the family and Mr Khan finally witnessed the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for what the judge described as a “terrible and evil crime” after new evidence emerged.
“In a way, the days of January were a redemption for me and the lawyers – where we had failed there had now been some partial success for us and the family,” said Mr Khan.
“This year has been massive with the convictions at the Old Bailey. I got emails calls and texts from people I had met over the last 19 years. I didn’t realise how much it had touched so many people. It was just so symbolic of so many things, and there was so much emotion pouring out.”
The Macpherson Report that examined the original Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) investigation concluded the force was “institutionally racist” and also recommended the double jeopardy rule should be abrogated in murder cases to allow a retrial upon new and compelling evidence, something which became law in 2005 and paved the way for this year’s convictions.
As for the legacy, Mr Khan said: “But for the murder we wouldn’t have had all the achievements that have come from the Lawrence case. The public inquiry acknowledged that racism existed in society and it wasn’t something that the police and the authorities took seriously. In one fell swoop we had the Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner accepting there was racism in the police service.”
Mr Khan will conduct a lecture in front of 300 people after the verdict prompted him to think others would like to hear the story. He is due to bring his “Legacy of Stephen Lawrence” talk to Coventry University on Tuesday (May 28).
“I realised there was a huge amount of interest and maybe people wanted to hear it. I’m flattered people are interested in what I’ve got to say. It’s about going on a journey, telling people what the key stages were. This is about looking at the case from my perspective, its 19-year history, what its legacy is and what its impact is.”
Mr Khan revealed how it was more by chance than by design that first he got involved in ground-breaking case.
“I was doing advice sessions on a Saturday for the local community, dragging in as many lawyers as I could to provide free legal advice,” he said.
“One of the barristers advising on immigration knew someone involved in supporting the Lawrence family. They said there had been this murder in south London and did I know anyone who could represent them. I gave my number, got a call and the rest is history. People think it was a big case back in ‘93 but it wasn’t. It was just another case that happened in my district.”
Mr Khan said it was the “constant pushing” by Doreen Lawrence that helped inspire him, though he did feel that at times taking on the forces of the state felt like an impossible task.
An unlikely ally emerged in the shape of the Daily Mail, the mass market tabloid which took the battle for justice up with a vengeance and which Mr Khan praised for its “courage”.
“The paper is indicative of middle England and certainly did change the way people viewed the case,” he said. “In 1993 it was a local issue not taken up by wider society, particularly middle England.
“What the Lawrence case did was hit every button in every political arena. A right wing middle England newspaper like the Daily Mail took it up because it was about a mother and son but it was also championed by the left. It crossed the boundaries. It is the personal story that resonates with people.”
Although he has no doubts racism still exists in Britain, albeit in a more covert way, Mr Khan believes the country has moved on in many respects.
“Have we ever got rid of racism? No we haven’t, it is still there. It has changed its shape and become more sophisticated. We don’t have skinheads in bovver boots – it has become more sophisticated, the BNP in suits and ties – but racism hasn’t gone away.
“Where I think things have changed is we now have the armoury to tackle it. In 1993 if someone said they were suffering racism and asked what they could do I would have said very little. Now in 2012 I have a full armoury of options I can use and I often do.
“One of the biggest departments in our firm is involved in suing the police for racism. It doesn’t give me any pride to say it does exist but its a sign of the redress available to people that the Lawrence family didn’t have in 1993. That is the most significant change.
“What the Lawrence case has done is acknowledge racism exists and given me the weaponry to tackle it. Mainly through legislation like the Race Relations Amendment Act and the Human Rights Act.
“It has permeated culture and society and made racism socially and culturally unacceptable.”
Looking to the future Mr Khan still has hopes of seeing other murder suspects in the case brought before the courts but another matter is the accusation of police corruption in the case.
“We know there were more than two involved in the murder, it is partial justice, though there is now serious consideration being given to those who are still out there.
“We met the Home Secretary last week and discussed the issue of corruption. Theresa May was very sympathetic and interested in our concerns. Doreen has said if there was corruption I want you to get to the bottom of it.
“There are calls to reconvene the Mcpherson Inquiry and look at corruption. I don’t think Doreen is optimistic about that but nonetheless feels she has to try for Stephen’s memory.”
* Mr Khan will deliver the Legacy of Stephen Lawrence lecture at Coventry University on Tuesday, May 28 at the Alan Berry Building, University Square from 6-8pm.