Books: Nothing about the Guards or Magdalene
Sunday 29 March 1998
THE ENGLISH BAR is an inn with two chambers. In the first, narrow and poorly ventilated, are thronged hordes of earnest souls, many slightly unkempt and all ill at ease in their wigs and gowns. To make their living, this cosmopolitan crowd - there are many women and ethnic minorities among them - jostle to receive their orders from the few bar-tenders (or "solicitors") willing to tend to their needs. They drink "Legal Aid", a particularly bitter draft made up of asylum-seekers, wronged wives and other victims that is frequently being watered down by the national brewery. Their search for justice is ill-paid, unrewarded, frequently a failure, but it is wholly, nobly real.
The inner chamber is a world set apart. The carpets are plush, the armchairs genuine leather and there is space to move about. The men sprawled here and there in their uniform dark suits share a confident Caucasian air and an effortless sense of belonging, as though they were all related to the owner. Hovering around these masters like the Oxbridge butlers they all collectively remember, the solicitors present offer a menu of corporate, commercial and taxation fare, washed down with the occasional celebrity libel or negligence defence. Legal Aid gets sipped now and then so that the rest of the repast can be enjoyed with a clear conscience. Every so often, one of the more comfortable of their number heaves out of his place and with a sigh ascends to the Bench to control the rabble next door.
Very, very occasionally, a chap who could just as easily loll about in this highly remunerated comfort suddenly ups sticks and moves in with the rabble next door, buying drinks, getting the best rounds and shouting abuse at the judges while he compels them to favour his many newly-adopted, previously benighted causes. Such a man is Geoffrey Robertson. Whatever genetic instability or psychological deviation it is that compels such a career choice should be isolated and force-fed to the rest of the commercial bar.
This wonderful book can only be fully enjoyed by those who have previously waded through the endless self-serving guff that poses as legal literature: the failed schoolboy humour of circuit reminiscences; the autobiographies of judges with chapter-titles like "Life in the Guards", "The Inquiry reports" and "Back to Magdalene". Robertson's book is part personal. We learn about his early start as a business lawyer, his move to Britain, his call to the Bar, and of his establishment of Chambers outside the charmed world of the Temple. All this is told self-deprecatingly and in a winningly light way, with no embarrassing forays into self-revelation or pop psychology.
The glory of the book however lies in its recounting of the legal cases in which to a varying extent Robertson has been involved over the past 25 years. Here the narrative is often riveting and full of brio: the black comedy of the Oz trial, the Gay News prosecution and The Romans in Britain debacle all reflect Robertson's early involvement in obscenity law. His chapters on Abbie Hoffman, the 1970s ABC trial and the Helen Smith affair reveal a sideways engagement with the darker side of state power. It is in this area that Robertson has come to recent public attention, and his chapters on Matrix Churchill and cash for questions are worth the price of the volume on their own.
The most passionate parts of the book are those which deal with capital trials abroad and with other appalling practices across which Robertson has been required to come in the course of his work. His investigations of a drug-rooted criminal conspiracy in Antigua read like a John Grisham infused with moral anger. His fury at British judges is nowhere more clearly expressed that when he describes how their frequently uttered pro-executive pronouncements - casually uttered for domestic consumption at home - have been seized upon and distorted by foreign tyrants to suit their own ends: if Lord Denning said it, it must be right!
Throughout the book Robertson is refreshingly scathing about the judges before whom he has had to appear. In the early chapters particularly, they are presented as thuggish neolithics from a bygone age, and it may be that it is a tactical discretion that dilutes the venom as the book proceeds: the man still has to earn a living at the Bar. In Robertson's view the best chance of securing justice is not by appealing to some Platonic guardian on the Bench but through the adversarial process itself, with the jury as the vital safeguard in serious criminal cases.
It is because of his commitment to this "justice game" that Robertson declares himself "passionately in favour of the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights". This change is an imminent political reality, and it will transform British law, permitting the courts to deliver not only far more justice, but also potentially do a great deal more harm. There will be no jury in most of these cases; only a judge or two with the power to distort Parliament's language (at Parliament's invitation) to conform to their view of what the European Convention and the Strasbourg case-law really means.
The business community, as well informed as ever, is already salivating at the mischievous impact it will have on state efforts to control their selfish excesses. Meanwhile the legal aid that has allowed Robertson and his like-minded colleagues to do what they have done stands on the brink of yet further attack, with vague talk of a human rights fund yet to be translated into reality. That part of the Bar that represents real people badly needs a strategy for coping with this potentially poisoned chalice. The bill of rights must not be allowed to be kidnapped from the rabble and brought next door to be added to the commercial chamber's bill of fare.
8 Conor Gearty is Professor of Law at King's College, London
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