Books: Oz and the Princess

Marcel Berlins enjoys legal yarns from an unlikely conservative
The Justice Game

by Geoffrey Robertson

Chatto & Windus, pounds 20

There is a temptation to add a sub-title: Geoffrey Robertson QC's Greatest Hits; but it would be unfair. Inevitably, and enjoyably, most of this book consists of Robertson's accounts of some of his high-profile and mould-breaking cases. But there's another layer too, a sub-text in which Robertson argues in favour of our system of justice. For all his reputation as a radical lawyer, flailing at the Establishment, he proves himself to be a believer.

Robertson goes to some trouble to fit his forensic tales into a reasoned thesis. The "game" he describes is not a trivial pastime, but an altogether more serious event - a struggle, bound by rules, which is at the heart of a democratic society. It is a game, crucially, in the sense that either party can win - unlike, say, the "justice" meted out in Stalin's show- trials, apartheid South Africa or today's Nigeria. "Justice is the great game," he writes, "because it provides the opportunity of winning against the most powerful, and against the State itself. This does not mean that David will necessarily slay Goliath, but that the laws of battle will prevent Goliath from sidling up and hitting him on the head."

Most of Robertson's clients have been Davids of a kind, not always poor or oppressed, but usually fighting against the odds. An Australian who came to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he had his first big case in 1971, before admission to the Bar, when he helped create the defence strategy for the defendants in the Oz trial. Cases involving public and private morality would be prominent in his career, including the prosecution of Gay News for blasphemy and Mary Whitehouse's prosecution of the National Theatre over its allegedly "lewd" production of The Romans in Britain.

He also played a central role in a host of other legal sensations, among them Neil Hamilton's libel suit against the Guardian; the Matrix Churchill trial leading to the Scott inquiry into arms for Iraq; and the fight for just inquests into the deaths of nurse Helen Smith in Saudi Arabia and the British victims of the American air-force's "friendly fire" in the Gulf war. He also defended in the now barely remembered but - in 1977 - hugely frightening "ABC" trial of three journalists under the Official Secrets Act.

Only the account of the Princess of Wales's attempt to sue over the pictures taken of her exercising in a health club is disappointing; I suspect Robertson's freedom to reveal all is restricted by his duty of confidentiality to his client, the gym owner Bryce Taylor. It would have been fascinating to be told why the Princess decided not to proceed with her claim - which could have introduced a right of privacy into English law. Was it just fear of being cross-examined? And what was the financial deal done with her, and with Taylor, said to have been given a small fortune to keep quiet? Robertson knows, but can't say.

He tells good stories with admirable lightness, avoiding legal jargon. The book could have been merely a procession of entertaining anecdotes; it is saved from that by his acute analysis of whatever he found unjust - the state of the law, the attitude of judges or the behaviour of government.

More than 25 years at the English Bar have not removed from Robertson the cool cynicism of the outsider. Yet he remains an enthusiast about the justice system. At its core lies the Bar's "cab-rank" rule, providing access to legal representation to even the most unpopular individual. He even trusts the judges more than Parliament to guard our liberties and protect the rights soon to be conferred when the European Convention becomes part of our domestic law.

His final evaluation of the English system of trial is that, for all its shortcomings "it is the best method we have yet devised for giving the suckers an even break". Those accustomed to tales of Robertson's flamboyant derring-do against the forces of authority may find it surprising to be confronted by a legal conservative.