How Hoffmann's halo slipped

LORD HOFFMANN may be reflecting today on how easy it is for a halo to slip.

Just three weeks ago, after casting the final and decisive vote against Augusto Pinochet's claim of immunity, he was the toast of the liberal intelligentsia as the pleasantly surprising progressive face of the legal establishment. Yesterday, with that victory turned to ashes, some of the same people were shaking their heads and muttering "Hoffmann should have known better."

After yesterday's 5-0 overturning of the Pinochet judgment by Lord Hoffmann's fellow law lords, one senior lawyer said: "Lennie Hoffmann was no doubt fully confident that he would be objective and unbiased, and that's all that mattered to him. He couldn't see it from the point of view of an outsider. It's the sort of lack of common sense that some very bright people suffer from."

The Pinochet case is not the first occasion Lord Hoffmann has been involved in controversial legal action.

In one case, his stand was directly opposed to that of Amnesty: sitting on the Privy Council, he refused an appeal against execution of a convicted murderer whose appeal Amnesty had backed.

At the time of the Neil Hamilton "cash for questions" row, it was Lord Hoffmann who put down an amendment to change the law on parliamentary privilege, which allowed the MP to sue The Guardian for libel.

Lord Hoffmann of Chedworth was born in l934 to a Jewish family from Muizenberg, near Cape Town.

He went to Cape Town University, and then Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where he got a first.

He taught at Oxford before becoming a barrister and then one of the most sought-after silks, earning more than pounds 500,000 a year by the Eighties.

He married Gillian Sterner, much in the news now because of her job with Amnesty International, and they live in a Georgian house in Hampstead, north London. Lord Hoffmann has a busy and varied social life and has served on the board of English National Opera and on the Arts Council advisory committee on London. Among his other haunts was Stringfellows nightclub, which he began to visit after meeting Peter Stringfellow during a court case, and where he was photographed with Page 3 models.

Lord Hoffmann stopped going to Stringfellows after he was made the Lord Justice of Appeal in l992 because of the possibility of adverse publicity.

Some will say it is ironic that his present difficulties are the result of links with a far more venerable organisation.