Prominent QC Michael Mansfield has described how his daughter’s suicide reaffirmed belief in “the necessity for understanding” as he deals with the Grenfell Tower families.
The barrister, who now represents many survivors and bereaved, said empathising with how lives were “shattered” by the disaster had been a key focus of his work.
Mr Mansfield’s daughter Anna took her own life in May 2015, prompting him to establish a charity, Silence of Suicide (SOS), which he runs with his partner Yvette Greenway.
Nearly a year on from the fire that left 72 dead, the lawyer reflected on how, like defining tragedies of the late 20th century, Grenfell Tower continues a “tradition” of ordinary people challenging the state.
The 76-year-old has previously represented the families of the Hillsborough stadium disaster victims and the parents of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, as well as those bereaved by the sinking of the Marchioness.
It’s a very simple point really, whenever you are representing a person or a group of people, you have to empathiseMichael Mansfield
SOS now supports traumatised witnesses, survivors and bereaved families connected to the Grenfell Tower fire – including the widow of a man who killed himself after losing friends in the fire that night.
On the impact his daughter’s death had on his professional work, Mr Mansfield told the Press Association: “I think it would be too far-reaching to say it’s changed an approach, I think what it has done is reaffirm the necessity for understanding.
“It’s a very simple point really, whenever you are representing a person or a group of people, you have to empathise.
“Not everybody agrees this is the right approach, I just feel in my case it is necessary to empathise and in order to empathise you really have to get into the shoes of the other person or people and try, in some way or another, to imagine what it would have been like to be somebody standing at the bottom of the tower watching the flames engulf either your home or a close relative’s home and you are powerless – what are your feelings?
“I think that the feelings will never go. You are living with them and, to that extent in relation to my daughter, they have never gone away, I think about her every day.
“I think about why she did what she did or try and imagine what the reasons were and the turmoil in her mind and so on.”
The terrible scale of human loss was recently laid bare during seven days of tributes to the dead at the Grenfell Tower public inquiry.
“It’s daily living – I think the pen portraits made that very clear – they are all living with this,” Mr Mansfield continued.
“That is one of the important things, you have to remember the extent to which lives have been shattered and lives have been changed and in order to do the job you have got to do, you have got to understand that – it is a very important motivating force.”
SOS is described by the lawyer as a “stress-based” organisation, which offers support for those struggling in day-to-day life, as well as those directly affected by suicide.
His partner Ms Greenway expressed fear that the clamour to apportion blame over Grenfell had forced mental health into the “back seat” and that a catastrophic psychological fallout could be brewing.
She spoke of seeing members of the North Kensington community – not including survivors or bereaved – collapse in to substance dependency following the blaze.
“I think there is a real strength in the community, a real insistence they are not going to be seen as weak, they are going to stand up, they are going to support each other and get through this whole process,” she said.
“I give them 100% credit for their strength and their unity because they have done absolutely fantastically, but once the judicial process is over I worry that if the right support isn’t there for those people it could be, psychologically, a crash and burn situation.”
The awful consequences of this were thrown into stark relief by the death of a man in his thirties with a history of mental health problems who lived near the tower.
Ms Greenway said: “He had lost his mother not long before and was really struggling to cope with her loss and then on the night in question apparently he lost friends.
“I don’t know how many, but he lost friends and the trauma of that compounded with the loss of his mother meant he couldn’t cope. He was drinking anyway and it just became too much and basically he took his own life.
“It was the trauma of Grenfell that really pushed him over the edge.”
Over a storied career, Mr Mansfield has been at the forefront of almost every major legal battle between victims of tragedies and those responsible.
But he resists drawing comparisons – saying they are “invidious” – save for one pertinent point.
He said: “This is part of a tradition – it has become a tradition – over the last 25 to 30 years.
“It is the way the community – not the system – have said ‘look here, we have put up with enough and we are not going to put up with anymore’ and, one-by-one, it has grown to such that now there is an understanding and a sort of empathy among people, they understand what people are talking about.
“Whereas in previous generations, people were deferential, they didn’t question, they didn’t challenge and if the state said ‘don’t worry, we’re doing it’ they just said ‘that’s fine’ – but you don’t do that anymore.
“Now what they want is questions asked and it is the advent of a democratic spirit within ordinary people.”
More information about SOS can be found at https://www.sossilenceofsuicide.org/.