Doreen Lawrence

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Doreen Lawrence was born Doreen Graham on the 24th October 1952 in Clarendon, Jamaica. She came to England aged 9 and grew up in Brockley and Greenwich, both in South East London.

After leaving Secondary School in 1970, Doreen worked for some years at the National Westminster Bank, a job she greatly enjoyed despite being sidelined for promotion. She held that job until 1974. She married Neville Lawrence in London in 1972 and they had 3 children, Stephen born on the 13th September 1974, Stuart and Georgina. She is a doting grandmother to her two year old granddaughter, Mia.

 After having her children, Doreen held several temporary part-time jobs including working as a care assistant and a school special needs helper to fit in with her children’s needs. As her children grew older, Doreen went on to further her education, intending initially to train as a teacher. In 1992 she started a BA (Hons) Humanities degree at the University of Greenwich and she continued her studies and graduated in 1995 despite personal tragedy and family upheaval during this period. In 1997 she gained a postgraduate certificate in Counselling Skills and in 1998 she gained a Postgraduate Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling also at the University of Greenwich. Although she later started her MSc in Therapeutic Counselling at the University of Greenwich, she discontinued the course as she was overwhelmed with work and personal commitments to give it the requisite attention.  

Doreen is the chair of the Trust and Confidence Group and involved with the Racist Incidents Group and the Community Panel and Vice Chair of the Delivery Board at the Home Office and for the last three years has been one of the judges of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Award (LALY) which is chaired by Cherie Booth QC. She feels passionate about legal aid as she is very aware from her own circumstances that not everyone can afford lawyers and legal aid lawyers can make a world of difference.

Between 1995 and 1996 Doreen worked as a Domestic Violence Advisor at the Hounslow Monitoring Project, a voluntary organisation. Between 1996 and 2002 she worked as a Students’ Financial Advisor at the University of Greenwich. 

Doreen’s life and that of her family was dramatically and irreversibly changed on the 22nd of April 1993 by the killing of her eldest son Stephen who was then aged 18 and studying for his A Levels. Stephen’s ambition was to become an architect and he had already at that stage done a work placement with a firm of architects. Stephen was stabbed twice with a large knife on both sides of his body. The knife penetrated his chest and arm severing major arteries. According to Doreen two lives ended that day – that of Stephen and “the second life that ended was the life I thought was mine. Since my son Stephen was killed with such arrogance and contempt I’ve had a different life, one that I can hardly recognise as my own”. No one has ever been convicted of Stephen’s killing.

Thirteen years after Stephen’s murder, Doreen finally felt able to give account of the events in which she was very reluctantly thrusted into the limelight. In her autobiography published in 2006, And Still I Rise she gave a harrowing and jaw-dropping account of the event immediately after Stephen’s murder. She also gave an account of her family’s long and arduous campaign to bring Stephen’s killer to justice and how they were unable to obtain the most basic information about her son’s murder. There were accounts of amazing levels of incompetence, recklessness and negligence, at best, by the Police in their handling of the investigation, their treatment of the victims, their treatment of the Lawrence family and the Lawrence family’s legal team. Stephen was never given First Aid, nor were attempts made by the police to see whether he could have survived even though given the seriousness of the injuries, he was unlikely to have survived. Vital pieces of evidence were ignored and not followed up and crucial pieces of forensic evidence were consequently destroyed by the perpetrators.

In 1995 after two frustrating years of fruitlessly trying to get justice for Stephen, Doreen said “No family should ever experience the last two years of our lives. This is the worst kind of fame. We have been brought into the public spotlight not by our own acts, but by the failure of others who were under a public duty to act”. In 1995, Doreen, her family and legal team (which included Imran Khan, Michael Mansfield QC, Martin Soorjoo and Margo Boye-Anawoma) continued the campaign which meant that Stephen’s murder was continually in the public consciousness. There was a Police reinvestigation that did not yield any change. Doreen and Neville brought an historic private criminal prosecution against the perpetrators for racist murder. That private prosecution was thrown out at the Old Bailey in 1996. Doreen described this period as the lowest point in her life since Stephen’s murder.        

At the Inquest into Stephen’s death in 1997, the jury unanimously decided that he was unlawfully killed “in an unprovoked racist attack by five white youths on the 22nd of April 1993”.

The murder of Stephen was to cost Doreen and her family dearly, including the loss of Stephen, Stuart missing out on his teenage years and suffering deep emotional trauma, Georgina missing out on her childhood and Doreen and Neville their marriage. According to Doreen her “marriage died the same night Stephen died”. The Lawrences divorced in 1999.

When the Labour Party won the 1997 election, Jack Straw the then Home Secretary agreed to a judicial Inquiry which was chaired by Lord Macpherson and the report published in 1999 concluded that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist” and made many recommendations. Following the report wide ranging changes were made to the British policing, criminal justice system and the handling of racist crimes which resulted in the police and other public bodies falling within the provisions of the Race Relations Act by virtue of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000.

In 1998, Doreen and her family set up the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and she and her ex-husband, Neville Lawrence were two of the trustees. At that time other trustees were Baroness Howells of St Davids, Jon Snow, the broadcaster and Arthur Timothy, the architect and Tim Cook. Stuart Lawrence also became a trustee in 2004.  

The Trust invests in young people whose aspirations and life chances are constrained by economic, cultural and social hardship and since its formation a major part of the work of the Trust has involved visiting schools in which Doreen takes an active part. The Trust’s aim is to broaden access to architectural, planning and associated professions and promotes equality, diversity and social cohesion. In 2007 the Trust plans to open the Stephen Lawrence Centre offering a variety of activities, including mentoring rooms for young people, flexible education studios, computer learning resources and meeting spaces, business development suites for young entrepreneurs, ‘state of the art’ Creative Arts Laboratory offering urban design, youth creativity and exhibition space for artists. The Trust is working with local colleges and universities on the project.

Doreen has received several awards and honorary degrees recognising her work in the field of race relations, campaigning for justice and equality for all, for her encouragement and support to minority young people in gaining access to higher education and generally for her services to the community. Her accolades include Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of East Anglia, Staffordshire, Bradford and Greenwich. In 2003 she was awarded an OBE by the Queen.

Below is our interview with Doreen:

BLD: After the private prosecution was thrown out in 1996 and you physically collapsed, how did you find the strength to carry on the campaign?

DL:  I was initially totally devastated at the time. I then felt anger that the judge had been brought in especially for the case. Also the reality of what we were trying to achieve sunk in – that there was no way an ordinary family like ours, trying to get justice for our son would be allowed to expose the system.  This was what made me carry on.

BLD: Can there ever be a closure for you about Stephen’s death if the killers are never brought to justice?

DL:  I don’t look at an end as I will always be angry whether the perpetrators are brought to justice or not. Stephen’s life was just wasted and bringing his killers to justice does not make that disappear.

BLD: In your view has policing and awareness of race and diversity issues improved since the Macpherson Report in 1998?

DL:   They have and they haven’t. The effect of the report was that it was the first time anything concrete was done and people have used it as a marker. However, a lot of people are in denial about what is happening. Racism is still happening – in our schools, prison service, police forces etc. However, since the Inquiry, people are more able to talk about it.

BLD: Non-lawyers very often have very negative views about lawyers but you have nothing but praise and admiration for your legal team, which included Imran Khan, Margo Boye-Anawoma and Michael Mansfield QC who worked for you and your family for free in the early years. What would your fight for justice have been like without these lawyers in your corner?

DL: We would not have got anywhere. Imran was the lynchpin. It was he who assembled the team and if we have had somebody else we would not have got anywhere. He was pivotal.

BLD: In so many of your roles and as a trustee of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, you are constantly helping black minority ethnic young people  to achieve their aspirations, what is the best career advice that you would give our budding lawyers?

DL:  It does not matter what profession they are trying to get into, our young people need support mechanism. At the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust we try to provide that support mechanism as talking to someone is sometimes all that is needed. When I went back to study as a mature student, it was one tutor who made a big difference for me – always there and listened. Also hardwork and dedication are important. I know from my own experience that it is not easy and there are times when things around you make you think you don’t want to carry on but you need that inner driver to carry on.   

BLD: Apart from your work with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, what other work do you do?

DL: Fifty per cent of my work is at the Trust and the other fifty percent is at the Home Office where I chair the Trust and Confidence Group which was set up following the Lawrence steering Group. Within the Trust and Confidence Group, I am on the panel for the Recruitment and Progression for Professionals within the justice system which includes the police, the prison service and race incidents. We have launched a 24 hour helpline for those experiencing racial violence and racist incidents

BLD: If you were to choose another job/role, other than what you are doing now, what would it be and why?

DL: I have always wanted to go to a Third World country and do some voluntary work. It is something I would dearly love to do but cannot at present given my commitment, particularly to the Trust.

BLD: The person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?

DL: There are many but three come to the top of my list. Nelson Mandela for his lack of bitterness and anger after spending twenty seven years in prison and after all they had done to him in that time. Also for being so statesmanlike and he has a voice that captivates you, holds you. The second is Maya Angelou who is just amazing and whom I have had the privilege of meeting twice. The third is Mary Seacole, the black British nurse who died in 1881 and had received the Crimean medal and the French Legion Honour but was only recognised some one hundred years later.   

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?

DL: My children and my granddaughter Mia who is now two years old.

BLD: What are your dislikes/makes you angry?

DL:  How people are treated unfairly and our failure to do more to help ourselves.  Also the fact that schools are failing our children and we obviously need to change that as a good education allows you to do so many things with your life.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?

DL: Stop all wars, stop all killings, stop people hurting. To see people’s pain, pains me.

BLD: Do you have any regrets (whether professional, personal or both)?

DL:  I wish I had told Stephen how much I loved and cared about him more and I wish I saw him grow up.