Reflections on life in the legal fast lane

The Justice Game

January 1, 1999

Nowadays very few barristers would consider writing a book (apart from technical manuals, of which there is a glut), and even fewer could do so with any chance of having it published. Geoffrey Robertson QC is an exception to this rule. He has written several. He says that The Justice Game is "not intended to be an autobiography and is probably too argumentative to qualify as a memoir". By this he means that he has selected some of his cases and described them with a view to showing how British justice operates and how it has operated over the years. He argues that things have improved since he started, but like any good modern barrister does not fall into the error of using the Latin tag  post hoc ergo propter hoc . He does, however, argue that lawyers playing what he calls the justice game on behalf of their clients with skill and courage (like he does) have made a difference and are a bulwark against oppression and a spur to greater freedom from the state.

The cheap response to this is to point out that to read his book, one would think that this improvement has been achieved only for clients of Robertson himself, since no other barrister or any judge gets much credit. No individual barrister - even if motivated, skilful and regularly briefed in the sort of cases that can change things - can single-handedly make much difference to anyone other than his own clients and their opponents. The change, if there has been one, is the result of a shift across the whole profession and judiciary. This is cheap because it misses the book's strength, in concentrating on a weakness that arises from its nature. It is not an academic treatise or legal textbook, but a record of the highlights of an extraordinary career that draws (but cannot establish) serious conclusions.

The author has been involved in some of the most sensational cases of the past 30 years: the Oz trial, Stonehouse, Gay News and Matrix Churchill among many others. He appeared at inquests into the deaths of the nurse Helen Smith in Saudi Arabia and British soldiers killed by American pilots in the Gulf war. He has also worked abroad and, being Australian, brings perspective to judging the British courts. He was briefed to defend the owner of a gymnasium against an action to be brought by Diana Princess of Wales for taking photographs of her in a busy room without her consent, and to defend The Guardian against a libel claim brought by Neil Hamilton and Ian Greer. These cases settled in dramatic circumstances deprived Robertson of three of the best opportunities for cross-examination ever offered. Finally, he has appeared in courts around the world, and in the Privy Council in Downing Street, on behalf of condemned men, some of whom have been executed. This unrivalled range of experience is worth recording, and the author is entitled to his wider reflections on it. Any idealistic law student (if they still exist) will find this book fascinating. The public outside the legal world who want to know "about life and art in the legal fast last lane" (blurb, not author's words) will enjoy this. The rest of the profession, stuck in the legal traffic jam on the A6, will view it with some cynicism but ultimately a less and less grudging respect as they read on.

Those interested in the Kremlinology required to understand our government will also find points of interest. We learn that when offered the brief to defend The Guardian against Hamilton, Robertson was staying at John Mortimer's villa in Tuscany with Tony Blair. This book was written at a time when it was possible for Robertson to write of the arms-to-Iraq scandal and to draw attention approvingly to the declaration of Robin Cook on taking office that "henceforth human rights would be a central consideration in policy-making". The intention of New Labour to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into United Kingdom law is something that Robertson rightly holds dear. The necessary bill was introduced into Parliament with commendable speed in October 1997. Only one section is yet in force, and no date has been set for the rest. The promised Freedom of Information Act is still under discussion. I should be interested to know whether the 1998 discussion over the ciabatta and Sangiovese was as contented as 1997's.

Our morale as a profession is at an all-time low. Legitimate public concern over fee levels has been spun into an assault on our existence. There is a danger that the good that the Bar has been able to achieve will be forgotten and undermined, leading to a scaling-down in the quality of legal services available to the ordinary person. This will probably save money for the state (although it may not). It will certainly reduce the ability of the ordinary people whom Robertson has been able to help over the years to stand up against the state. What does it profit a country if it gains the European Convention of Human Rights but loses the ability to enforce it against its government?

The defence of the English Bar is not the aim of this nicely old-fashioned book, but it presents a fine justification for its continued existence. The Bar emerges from Robertson's withering and radical scrutiny as imperfect and variable in quality but ultimately a good thing. I fear that even in 10 years this book will seem as quaint and archaic as Leaves of a Life, The Reminiscences of Montagu Williams QC (London 1893), does now. This is no fault of the book, but a result of the fact that the legal world it describes is about to vanish.

Andrew Edis QC is a practising barrister.

The Justice Game

Author - Geoffrey Robertson
ISBN - 0 7011 6348 8
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 413

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