This autobiography of an outstanding civil rights lawyer, who has specialised in inquests, doubles as an incisive and detailed account of many of the most important human rights cases of the last 30 years. Thomas always puts the people involved at the heart of his account. I felt that the book, while being candid about his own story including his legal learning curves and sometime errors, was an opportunity for him to foreground the lives of those whose stories are often ignored.
This is the story of a South London working class Black man who gets to the top of his profession doing cutting edge legal work. Much of Thomas’s early life was lived in Battersea, Clapham and Balham, and Riverside readers will find many places they know. As a Queen’s Counsel (senior barrister) Leslie Thomas has represented bereaved families in inquests in many deaths in custody and police shootings. His work includes landmark cases such as those of Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan. He has also played a critical part in legal examinations of disasters including such as the Grenfell Tower fire and Hillsborough, as well as developing a practice in the Caribbean, and all of this work is discussed in detail. The chapter dealing with the second inquest into the New Cross Fire, moving in itself, also shows a moment of revelation for Thomas: “…it made me realise that what mattered wasn’t the lawyers’ political spin on the case, which is sometimes very easy to do, but what was best for the clients”.
One of the things I liked most about Do Right and Fear No One was its accessibility. Areas that may be unfamiliar to readers, such as what the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights are and how they apply to real life, or how inquests work and what they are for, are explained clearly and concisely without this feeling patronising. I found this so useful. Demystifying the law is vital, particularly areas that people may feel no connection with until they erupt into their own lives – for example when they suddenly have to attend an inquest for someone close to them.
Thomas gives due credit to families, colleagues and others who he has worked alongside, placing his legal work in context. For anyone who visited the outstanding ICA exhibition War Inna Babylon – the Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights last year, Do Right and Fear No-one will be an essential read (see https://www.ica.art/exhibitions/war-inna-babylon).
Thomas’s mother Pearl sounds like a truly remarkable woman, working all hours and supporting her children to do their best. Talking about his father Godfrey, who he had a difficult relationship with at times, his account reminded me at times of David Harewood’s story in Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/david-harewood/maybe-i-dont-belong-here/9781529064131). Both men reflect on the racism their fathers faced, and the long-lasting effects this had on their health, especially in later life.
My one criticism of the book is that the publisher did not include an index. This detailed book should be widely read and easily searchable. Publisher: please commission an index for the paperback. If anyone needs convincing of why indexes are great, see my review of Dennis Duncan’s excellent book on just this subject.
On a lighter note, I really liked Thomas noting that he used to talk fast “as South Londoners do” – this is definitely true of me. This is a great read.