Lord Mishcon

Solicitor and Labour frontbencher


Victor Mishcon, solicitor: born London 14 August 1915; solicitor, Victor Mishcon & Co (later Mishcon de Reya) 1937-88, senior partner 1988-92, consultant 1992-2006; Chairman, London County Council 1954-55; created 1978 Baron Mishcon; married 1940 Jean Hydleman (died 1943), 1945 Beryl Posnansky (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1959), 1967 Doreen Segal (marriage dissolved), 1976 Joan Conrad (marriage dissolved 2001); died London 27 January 2006.

Victor Mishcon was the third of an outstanding triumvirate of charismatic post-war Jewish solicitors, who also included Lord Goodman and Sir David Napley. He was created a life peer in 1978, when James Callaghan was Prime Minister, and sat on the Labour front bench in the Lords. He was to play an important part in the peace negotiations between Jordan and Israel which led to the 1994 peace treaty. But it was his role as lawyer to the Princess of Wales in her divorce proceedings of 1996 which made him known to the wider public.

Mishcon was born in 1915 in Brixton, south London, where his father Arnold was the United Synagogue rabbi and a considerable Jewish scholar. His father was on friendly terms with all the local clergy, including the vicar, the Roman Catholic priest and the Unitarian minister. Something of the same broadness of vision was inherited by his son.

Victor Mishcon was educated at Dulwich Preparatory College and the City of London School, which he left when he was 17. He was articled to Walter Louis D'Arcy Hart of Gilbert Samuel & Co, a grandson of Lord Swaythling and a City solicitor with an excellent commercial law practice. D'Arcy Hart was "a very impressive [person], a wonderful lawyer, somewhat eccentric," Mishcon remarked. "One couldn't have a better example to follow."

Mishcon, having qualified as a solicitor, opened a law practice, Victor Mishcon & Co, in the Brixton area at the age of 22, as he had many contacts in the local Jewish community. His father, who was an acting dayan (judge in a rabbinical court), had died at the age of 55 and Mishcon's mother was left dependent on a widow's pension. Although he had been offered a position with Gilbert Samuel & Co, Victor Mishcon felt that he would be financially better off by opening his own practice.

During the 1930s, Brixton was quite a prosperous residential area, with a considerable amount of conveyancing and litigation work available. Mishcon loved advocacy in the magistrates' courts, becoming known locally as the "Attorney-General for South London". He had wanted to make a career as a barrister, but the family's financial circumstances precluded this.

During the Second World War, while Mishcon was in the services, his Brixton practice was run by a managing clerk under the supervision of a local solicitor. After the war, Mishcon retained his original Brixton office, but opened additional offices in Wimbledon and Stockwell. The Brixton practice mainly handled civil and matrimonial legal aid claims and did very little criminal legal aid work.

Because the Brixton office had dealt with the divorce of Ruth Ellis, she approached Mishcon when in 1955 she was charged with the murder of her lover, David Blakely, but he recommended that she go to a specialist criminal lawyer. However, after her conviction for murder, she sent for Mishcon shortly before her execution, "this time to deal with her private affairs, and especially her young son, [and] having heard her story in full, which to my knowledge had never been completely revealed before, I persuaded her . . . to allow me to apply [to the Home Secretary] for a reprieve," Mishcon declared.

Ellis explained to him that she had been drinking for many hours with her older lover Desmond Cussen, who had handed her a loaded gun and had driven her to Blakely's Hampstead home, where she shot her ex-lover. Cussen was insanely jealous of Blakely. Although Mishcon telephoned the Home Office and Sir Frank Newsam, the senior civil servant involved, was tannoyed at the Ascot races, the police failed to find Cussen quickly and the reprieve was not granted.

Mishcon plunged into local government politics, following the example of Lewis Silkin, and at the same time continued his active involvement in Jewish communal affairs. Among the posts that Mishcon held was that of Chairman of the Institute of Jewish Studies, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies, and President of the Association of Jewish Youth and of the British Technion Society. Shortly after the war, he had served as Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Lambeth Borough Council.

He also became a member of the London County Council in 1946, rising through the ranks of various committee chairmanships and in 1954 he became the youngest chairman of the LCC of the century. Despite four attempts to become an MP, Mishcon failed to become elected to Parliament and turned his attention elsewhere.

By the 1960s, Mishcon had closed his south London practice and concentrated his activities in his Holborn office. Again, the character of the practice was changing, with more and more commercial work being handled in the central London office, but it was still, in 1981, according to one observer, a "small, typical commercial practice with private client work". The clients were "small companies, two or three public companies, a number of private clients, [and] a lot of charities". Among Mischon's property developer clients were his cousin Sir Maxwell Joseph, who owned a large chain of hotels, and Lord Palumbo. Other business clients included the Lombard Bank, Robert Maxwell and Gerald Ronson, whom Mishcon advised to pay back the "success fee" which he had received from Guinness in their takeover bid for Distillers in 1986.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mishcon also had an interest in Blatchfords, a law practice based at Norwich House, Southampton Place, in central London, which did a considerable amount of litigation for trade unions. Among the unions it acted for were the National Union of Seamen and the agricultural workers' union, dealing with an endless stream of industrial accident and motor insurance claims affecting their members.

Mishcon acted for Jeffrey Archer in 1987 in a sensational libel suit against the Daily Star, when it was alleged that Archer had slept with a prostitute and his counsel demanded hefty damages for a public figure, who had been crucified by the popular press. Archer secured damages of £500,000. But it emerged that he had deceived his lawyers and that a witness had provided Archer with a false alibi; and in 2000 he went on trial for perjury and perverting the course of justice. While in prison, Archer came to an out-of-court settlement, paying the newspaper a sum of more than £1.85m.

Through Mishcon's friendship with Lord Palumbo, his services were recommended to the Princess of Wales when she needed a lawyer for her divorce in 1996 and the Duchess of York became a client too; for, behind his charming and genial manner, Mishcon had a reputation as a tough negotiator. Because of his age and the time he anticipated it would take to settle the matter, Mishcon thought it wisest to leave the detailed negotiations for the Princess's divorce to a younger partner in his firm, Anthony Julius. As senior partner, Mishcon, however, kept an active interest in the progress of the proceedings.

In 1983 Mishcon became the chief opposition spokesman in the House of Lords, while in 1990 he was appointed shadow Lord Chancellor and in 1992 was one of the first solicitors to be made an honorary QC. Earlier he had served as a member of the Wolfenden Committee on homosexual offences and prostitution (1954-57) which radically reformed the law relating to homosexuality.

Through his daughter Jane's friendship at school with the sister of the late King Hussein of Jordan, Mishcon's country house in England was used as the venue for secret meetings between Shimon Peres, then Israeli Foreign Minister, and the Jordanian king. Mishcon himself crossed the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan on a number of occasions with secret notes to enable the two sides to clarify their ideas, and while keeping out of the actual negotiations, assisted them in reaching an agreement and signing a peace accord in 1994.

John Cooper

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