Interview: Jocelyn Cockburn human right lawyer

Lawyer who represented Stephen Lawrence’s family and won a landmark ruling on soldiers’ human rights has been at the heart of some of the most politically sensitive cases of the past decade

When the families of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently because of inadequate equipment, first contacted Jocelyn Cockburn for help she was uncertain if she was the best person to represent them.

The human rights lawyer had spent her career representing vulnerable people in legal battles against the state, and, initially, she viewed soldiers as agents of the state.

“My cases are against the state – the little man, I suppose, against the big bullying monolith,” she says. “Soldiers are state agents, in a way a bit like police officers.”

It took her a while to realise that soldiers also needed legal protection. “I have learned that soldiers are an incredibly vulnerable class of people. Because they have to do what is ordered of them they have very little autonomy.”

Cockburn had a notable success this summer at the supreme court when she represented the families of three soldiers killed by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan and won a landmark ruling confirming that the Ministry of Defence had a duty to protect the human rights of soldiers, even when they were on the battlefield.

It was a significant and controversial victory, but not her first. Cockburn has been at the heart of some of the most interesting and politically sensitive court cases of the past 10 years. As well as taking on the MoD, she has represented Neville Lawrence, launching the judicial review that helped secure the reopening of a moribund investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s death, and which helped bring about the conviction last January of two men for his murder.

She also represented the family of Fiona Pilkington, the woman who took her own life and that of her disabled daughter, Francecca Hardwick, after enduring months of disability-related abuse, securing undisclosed damages from Leicestershire police, who recognised that they had not responded sufficiently to the family’s requests for help.

Last year Cockburn was named partner of the year by the legal journal The Lawyer for her achievements.

When people ask Cockburn if she is nervous about taking on the force of the MoD, she replies: “No, because I’ve done a lot more frightening things in my life than that.”

Although it is a subject she prefers not to dwell on, this is a reference to her disability. She had a tumour removed from her spine when she was six and developed scoliosis, which affected her growth and left her with some enduring health problems.

She has always flinched from describing herself as disabled, but concedes that the experience of growing up “different” gave her a strength she might otherwise not have had, as well as a desire to represent vulnerable people.

“I have never defined myself as a disabled person; I’m still not really sure I am disabled, I’m just different physically. But I do feel it has played a big …read more  

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