Obituary: Peter Duffy QC

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THE BRUSSELS summer of 1976 was so hot that students preferred to work in the cool of the night. At 3am, when most had gone to bed, one phone line would hum to an exposition of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to the law of the European Communities: Peter Duffy was revising. Those of us on the other end were (ultimately) grateful to him for sharing his knowledge with us. Duffy's life was characterised by the dedication which found him at the books while those with less stamina slept; and the subject matter of those late-night calls, human rights, was the defining feature of his career.

Duffy's application as a student was rewarded by first class Law degrees at Cambridge. In Brussels in the middle of the exam period he became ill, fainted and fell downstairs (probably all those late nights). He was left with a broken and slightly crooked nose, but his illness did not prevent him obtaining one of the three best degrees ever awarded by the Institute of European Studies. From there, he went on to Queen Mary College, London, where he taught until he took up practice at the Bar in 1988.

It was as a barrister that Peter Duffy made his most significant contribution to the advancement of human rights. He appeared in many of the most important human rights cases of the past decade, several known well beyond the confines of the law - his arguments convinced the Court of Appeal that European Community law entitled Diane Blood to try to conceive her dead husband's child; Duffy argued before the European Court Luxembourg that lesbians, such as Lisa Grant in her case against South West Trains, should benefit from European employment equality laws; he persuaded the European Human Rights Commission to condemn discrimination in the gay age of consent; he challenged the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces, and was looking forward to a hearing of the case before the Strasbourg Court in May; in 1997, he persuaded the Divisional Court to declare "unconstitutional" a regulation made by the Lord Chancellor charging court fees to people on Income Support.

In the same year, the Lord Chancellor appointed him Queen's Counsel after only nine years in practice. In one of his last cases, he represented Amnesty International, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and others in the Pinochet case before the House of Lords.

Duffy was generous with his time, often not charging for cases which mattered to him. From 1989 to 1991 he was chairman of the international executive committee of Amnesty International, an organisation to which he had a long-term commitment. Together with (but less famously than) Lord Hoffmann, he was a trustee of the Amnesty International Charitable Trust and one of the leading figures in Amnesty's Human Rights Centre appeal. He also helped many other human rights organisations, notably Liberty, Justice and Stonewall.

In spite of his distinction, Duffy did not want recognition for himself, yet he was always concerned that the work of others should be recognised. In 1997, he refused a nomination as Human Rights Lawyer of the Year; instead he nominated the winners, Stonewall and Lord Lester of Herne Hill (he nominated the winners again in 1998). Only a few weeks ago, he was organising dinners to celebrate the appointment of Sir Nicolas Bratza to the European Court of Human Rights and Sir John Laws to the Court of Appeal.

To those who worked with him, Duffy was a generous and considerate colleague. He frequently advanced the careers of young junior barristers by bringing them in to important cases. To those who appeared against him, he was a courteous and fair opponent. To the courts he addressed, he was a respected and authoritative advocate, on whose integrity they could depend, and whose knowledge they could and did tap like a fast-access database equipped with an imagination. To those he represented, he was kind and compassionate, appreciating that the courts where lawyers spend their lives are intimidating to ordinary people.

Regrettably, generosity, compassion and modesty are not qualities readily associated with the legal profession, nor is the advancement of human rights regarded as the factor which motivates the practice of law. At a time when the Human Rights Convention is about to become enforceable in our courts, Duffy was embarking on a new and exciting phase of his career, teaching the judiciary and the profession about human rights, a task for which he was uniquely qualified. The cause of human rights can ill afford to do without advocates as effective as Peter Duffy.

Peter Joseph Francis Duffy, barrister: born Epsom, Surrey 25 August 1954; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1978; member, Law Faculty, Queen Mary College, London 1979-89, Airey Neave Fellow 1989-91; QC 1997; married 1980 Vivienne Furneaux (three daughters, and one son deceased); died London 5 March 1999.