Lawyer of the Month: Claire Mitchell QC
As someone who was inspired to become a lawyer after watching Granada TV show Crown Court, Claire Mitchell QC has always loved the drama of advocacy.
“Crown Court was my first experience of the legal process and of true crime – I know it wasn’t true, but I was watching it as if it had happened and I was absolutely fascinated by the theatre of the court,” she says.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Ms Mitchell should have gravitated towards conducting criminal appeals, with the theatricality of the appeal court never failing to remind her why she entered the profession in the first place.
“The first time I went and saw someone doing an appeal I thought it was amazing; I loved the theatre of it,” she says.
“I still remember the excitement of watching for the first time someone doing a sentencing appeal – they were so eloquent and passionate. I loved the interaction between the bench and the counsel.
“At the end of the case the three judges got together in a huddle at the back of the court. They had a two-minute chat then gave their decision right away. It wasn’t just justice being done, but justice being seen to be done.”
Aside from the theatricality of the appeal court, helping people right wrongs that have been committed against them is the main reason Ms Mitchell chose to focus her practice on criminal appeals.
It is also one of the main reasons she has embarked on a campaign to seek justice for the thousands of women convicted and executed as witches in Scotland between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. As debate rages about the role statues and other memorials have to play in the public’s understanding of history, the campaign – which hopes to secure not only a pardon but a public memorial for Scotland’s so-called witches – could not be more timely.
“When I moved to Edinburgh I lived in the Old Town and was aware of the fact that just up the road women were convicted in the courts and further up near the castle they were executed. I was living in that history,” Ms Mitchell explains.
“The reason I got involved is I was walking in Princes Street Gardens and I was looking at all the memorials and they related to wars most of the time. I’m not saying for an instant that we shouldn’t have those – it’s important to honour that – but I came up to the top of the gardens and saw a life-size statue to Wojtek the bear, who had done great things in the Second World War, and I thought there’s not one named woman on a statue in this place. I thought there are hundreds of women who suffered miscarriages of justice in this park and they don’t have so much as a mention.”
Though there have been countless miscarriages of justice over the centuries, Ms Mitchell says the story of Scotland’s witches was of particular interest because it had affected so any women who, in their own lifetimes, had no means of defending themselves.
“Part of the whole thing that angers me is that women weren’t competent to say anything on their own behalf,” she notes. “This is where my interest in history, my interest in human rights, my interest in miscarriages of justice and my interest in ensuring female visibility came together in the one moment and I thought I want to do something about this.”
An event planned for early April – at which Ms Mitchell, Edinburgh University historian Professor Julian Goodare and author Sara Sheridan were planning to make the case for pardoning Scotland’s witches – had to be postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown. But Ms Mitchell is pressing ahead with plans to petition the Scottish Government in order to secure an official pardon for those who were convicted of witchcraft, a public apology for those who were tortured but not convicted, and a public memorial or memorials to remember them by.
“There are a number of sites all over Scotland where hundreds of women and men [were executed],” Ms Mitchell says. “I don’t mind if it’s one public memorial or six public memorials, but I would like some kind of public recognition that these things happened and shouldn’t have.
“These women were obliterated from society; they were strangled to get rid of them then they were burnt to get rid of the vestiges of them. I’m a realist; I’m acutely aware that the country might not be able to afford anything at the moment, but an apology or pardon would cost time but not much money.”
Much of the promotion for the campaign is being conducted via Twitter, a resource Ms Mitchell says is not only allowing her to bring the story of the witches of Scotland to a wider audience but to connect with people who would like to follow her into the legal profession too. Television shows like Crown Court may have had an influence on her generation, she says, but social media is what is driving interactions now.
“People contact me on Twitter to ask my views; students contact me to ask about how to become an advocate. That’s great – it breaks down barriers,” she says.
“If someone saw you in court they might be a bit reticent about speaking to you, but in the modern world they can just drop you a tweet.
“It might be that we’ve moved away from TV and people will decide to become a lawyer after speaking to them and engaging online.”