Indubitably one of the most enigmatic and fascinating characters in the legal world, there are many more questions pertaining to Peirce than there are answers. Why did she change her name from Jean to Gareth? What motivated her, a Cheltenham Ladies’ College educated Oxford graduate – an education and upbringing most typically renowned for producing archetypal pillars of the community – to become the epitome of a thorn in the side of the establishment? Why did she accept her CBE only to ask, discretely, for it to be withdrawn several days later?
Although it is hard to profess to know anything about Gareth as a character, her notoriety has made her one of the most recognisable figures in the legal profession. Her involvement in high profile cases, defending the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and Moazzam Begg to name but a few, has only heightened the sense of intrigue around her, and the growing public desire to understand this figure, whose resolve is so far removed from the perpetual panic of their own in the face of the – Gareth would argue, often hyperbolised – war on terror.
Gareth has caused controversy by representing some of the scapegoats who, the government believe, epitomise those groups most deplored in the war on terror. The common denominator shared by all those whom she represents is their underdog status. What is unique to them, though, is that, unlike in light-hearted competition, the underdog in the UK-government-versus-prosecuted-civilian dynamic plays a much grittier part, not championed by a public who admire their dogged pluck and sportsmanship in the face of an insurmountable adversary. For we have faith in the infallibility of our justice system: after all, its basic conception of right and wrong has provided the basis for our own. Not so Gareth. She even went as far as to write an article for the Guardian arguing that Lockerbie bomber al-Meghari was actually a victim of framing by the US government, questioning the universally accepted untouchability and incontrovertibility of those acting in the name of counter-terrorism on UK soil. They say ‘terrorism’, and our questions, doubts, qualms are silenced instantaneously, quashed by the brandishing of one loaded word, a skeleton key that can fit any lock. And it is this very issue that Gareth diligently, quietly, tirelessly works to change.
Some might see her endeavours as the inexplicable defence of the indefensible, but Gareth sees it differently. She is quoted as saying that ‘the minority has to be protected from what the majority thinks – otherwise the Benthamite thing, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, prevails’. Often she is right; whilst her undertaking of the defence of some of the country’s most notorious, often universally loathed, criminals can lead to the inevitable lambasting of her moral stance, her stoicism is continually vindicated, with the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six commonly acknowledged to be among the worst cases of miscarriage of justice in UK history. Gareth has recognised the creation of a new ‘suspect community’, shifting focus from the Irish to Muslims, with public opinion following the consensus on the war on terror as if swept downstream by a relentless, implacable tide. So too, she has shifted her focus to giving a voice to this new, persecuted minority. For some, her defence of Abu Qatada beggars belief. For others, her refusal to shirk away from controversy is endlessly admirable. What is certain, though, is that when Gareth Peirce takes on a case, people prick up their ears.
Gareth’s pertinacious pursuit of human rights reform can be traced back to her time as a journalist in America, following Martin Luther King on his campaign in the 1960s. The ideals that she picked up here formed the bedrock for the trajectory of her career. Armed with this notion of the capacity of a system for dramatic change, she returned to the UK and, having achieved her postgraduate law degree from the London School of Economics, started her career at a firm run by radical solicitor Benedict Birnberg. She quietly pursued miscarriages of justice, until her acquittal of the Guildford Four cemented her reputation. The press interest and the public awe followed, with the case becoming immortalised by a Hollywood movie – Emma Thompson played Gareth Peirce. Ever since, interest in this elusive figure has not wavered, and Gareth Peirce’s name has become inextricably synonymous with human rights.