Cases & Projects
Pro bono spotlight: Mark Stephens
Once described as “the patron solicitor of previously lost causes”, Mark Stephens is well-known both in Britain and abroad as a leading defender of human rights and media freedom. He began his legal career providing advice to artists and set up his own practice, with a partner, before merging with the law firm Finers to create Finers Stephens Innocent. He chairs MLDI's International Advisory Board and handles much of its litigation at the European Court of Human Rights. His team also advises some of MLDI's partners on their litigation before the European Court of Human Rights.
Among many high-profile cases in which he has been involved, Mark represented the Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal at the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, which sought to compel the reporter to give evidence during a hearing on alleged genocide. He argued on Randal’s behalf that if journalists covering conflicts might be required to testify at subsequent war crimes trials this would put them at risk while doing their job. The case established the principle that journalists would have qualified privilege in such circumstances.
For a time Mark represented Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, which had published leaked US diplomatic cables, against attempts to have him extradited to Sweden. Assange later sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
In addition to his heavy work load, Mark sits on numerous government, regulatory and charitable committees and frequently writes and broadcasts on legal issues. He chairs the International Advisory Board of MLDI and he has given it pro bono support in a number of cases before the European Court of Human Rights.
MLDI asked him about his life and work.
You originally thought of becoming an actor, but went into the law instead. Why?
I was tricked into the law. I was at stage school as a child actor and realised that I wasn’t as good as some of my classmates.
My father then tricked me into being a lawyer. I had wanted to work in the music industry and so he got our then lodger – the publisher of the Pink Floyd’s music -- to promise me all the Floyd’s work if I became a lawyer. And I’m very grateful to them both for putting me on the legal path, even though I didn’t get the Floyd’s work!
What attracted you to those areas of the law in which you have become an authority – particularly the media and freedom of expression?
My father is a painter and so I became very interested in artistic free expression first of all. I was retained by artists to take a number of cases, and I then began representing journalists and the NUJ, so freedom of expression, its importance in society and the rights necessary to protect it (like the protection of journalistic sources) just became part of my DNA.
Which cases in which you have acted successfully do you remember with greatest pride?
There are many, but perhaps of most significance was the case of Jonathan Randal, where we established new international law that journalists cannot – except in extremis – be compellable witnesses in war crimes trials. If participants in conflicts believe that journalists are nothing but catspaws for a post-conflict prosecution, then they will be targeted and killed in greater numbers than they currently are. This decision extended a principle we had established in the Saville (Bloody Sunday) Inquiry, where journalists, for the same reason, could not be compelled to give evidence against the terrorists.
Any major disappointments?
Yes, we all suffer disappointments, but my major concern is the number of important cases which are not given a hearing by the European Court of Human Rights. That said, MLDI have had nine cases accepted or argued in the past two years, all but one of which have been winners for free speech.
You have been described as “the patron solicitor of previously lost causes”. What kind of cause would you acknowledge as beyond saving and not worth defending?
Sadly, I think that any hope of Julian (Assange) walking free from the Ecuadorian Embassy is now – and predictably - a lost cause.
What do you regard as the main threats to media freedom today, in Britain and elsewhere, taking into account especially the much-debated growth of social media?
Social media is the bogeyman of free speech. It isn’t the problem that some would have you believe. You only have to look at totalitarian regimes around the world, its significance in the Arab Spring and citizen journalism coming out of conflict zones like Syria, and formerly Sri Lanka, to understand the real importance of the citizen holding the state to account and challenging despots. The utility of social media far outweighs the comments of the rude and ignorant: indeed this is reflected in the welcome and far sighted guidelines issued by the DPP Keir Starmer QC on when prosecutions should be brought against speech.
How do you find time in your busy professional life not only for hobbies but for your many appointments to charitable, academic and other bodies, not to mention pro bono work?
I guess if you want something done, ask a busy person!
What advice would you give a young lawyer today who wanted to specialise in the same areas as you do?
Don’t expect to make a fortune, but go and work in an NGO which works for freedom of expression and human rights. It will be the most rewarding thing you do.