Law: The barrister who is game for anything

For Michael Beloff QC, going part-time means working in Kuala Lumpur, Jersey and Oxford.
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The Independent Culture
EVER HEARD of a lawyer settling your problem overnight? It sounds unlikely. But that's precisely what Michael Beloff claims he can do.

The circumstances, admittedly, are unusual. The Hon Michael Beloff QC - to give him his full title - is currently working at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. He's the only lawyer from Europe on the six-strong panel of the International Court of Arbitration, a group of lawyers originally established to settle disputes at the Olympics. Why Beloff? Because he decided, two years ago, to stop working full-time at the Bar. In doing so, he made himself available for a wide range of extra-curricular activities.

If something does come up at the Games, it is likely to be a doping case, an infringement of the advertising arrangements, or perhaps an appeal against some decision.Whatever the problem, it will need a hasty resolution: "The object is to stop people from whizzing off to domestic courts," he explains. "Otherwise you might get some judge putting a stop to the entire games."

Later this month, Beloff will sit for a couple of weeks on the Court of Appeal in the Channel Islands, which, to be frank, sounds relaxing. "It's a marvellous job," says Beloff. "A distinctive legal system, and you can walk along the beach in the sun and go paddling at dawn!"

One other thing that keeps him busy is sitting on the Senior Salaries Review Board, in charge of judicial salaries. "When I was full-time at the Bar, I tried to do pro bono [free] work. Now, if someone wants my time, I can give it free, rather than charging, and feel rather better doing that."

Until a couple of years ago, Beloff earned as much as pounds 1m a year as one of the country's leading advocates. Sporting disputes were one particular specialism. A reasonable athlete himself ("I won the 100 yards at Eton"), he acted in most of the major doping cases in athletics, and acted for Tottenham Hotspur when the team was excluded from the FA Cup, and had six points deducted for financial irregularities back in the Eighties. "But this was the Nineties, and we argued that it was unfair." He won, despite it being almost unheard of for the decision of a sport's governing body to be overturned. (His reward? "I met Alan Sugar, had lunch at the club, and was given a signed photograph of the team.")

But sporting disputes accounted for just a part of his time. Regarded as one of the most versatile barristers of his generation, Beloff took on and won libel battles, commercial disputes, local government cases and employment tribunals. He acted over the years for clients who included Kevin Maxwell, the Church of Scientology and Gillian Taylforth.

In addition to his heavy caseload (as many as 56 cases in a year), Beloff was joint head of chambers at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square. One of its tenants - brought in by Beloff some years ago on recommendation of the current Lord Chancellor - happens to be the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC. "Lord Irvine rang me 10 years ago about this young lady barrister," he remembers. "He said, `she's frightfully able, would you look at her?' I was mesmerised because, without being extraordinarily vain, she was positive about her qualities, and that's difficult to bring off."

But with all this on his hands, Beloff's life was not his own. "It's a ruthless, competitive profession,' he says. As a fellow barrister put it, in 1994: "[Beloff] does too much work for his own health - about 15 hours a day." But then, in 1996, he became President of Trinity College, Oxford. Many people would have settled for that, but instead of giving up his old job, Beloff decided to combine the two. So, these days, he divides his time between Oxford and London's Holland Park. After a dinner in college, he says, "I can usually be released by 8.30pm, and be back at my house in London by midnight, for a day in chambers."

During term time, his legal practice is slightly limited because he has made a commitment never to miss a meeting of the college governors.

Beloff spends an increasing proportion of his time giving legal opinions. He is drafting a new code of discipline for accountants, and recently drafted General Medical Council guidance for doctors on patient confidentiality.

But he still acts for a wide range of notable clients. One is a vicar who was defrocked by the Church of Wales. Another is Shepherd Neame, the independent brewer which is challenging the Government over increases in beer excise. When Geoffrey Robinson MP got into hot water about his overseas trusts, he consulted Beloff. But perhaps the highest profile client is Mohamed al Fayed: for some years, Beloff has advised on the Harrods' owner's applications for British citizenship.

The Trinity job provides plenty to interest him. As well as running the college, Beloff is a trustee of the Oxford Union, and of Cherwell; he organises debates at Trinity; and invites a wide range of guests to college dinners. So will he give up the Bar? "I could be tempted, but in a single week I could earn as much as in a whole year at Trinity."

Beloff, plainly, is not the sort to take life easy. "I can never sit still," he says. "The idea of crashing out or listening to music for hours and looking at the ceiling - I never did that." Still only 56, he has an alarming message: "Time is running out, and I must cram in a good deal."