Ronald Bernstein

Innovative barrister specialising in property law
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The Independent Online

Ronald Bernstein was among the first to appreciate that the successful modern barrister must be a specialist; and he developed his practice principally in the field of landlord and tenant.

Ronald Harold Bernstein, barrister: born Pontypridd, Glamorgan 18 August 1918; DFC 1944; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948, Bencher 1975-2004; QC 1969; Recorder of the Crown Court 1974-90; Vice-President, General Council of the Bar 1988-91; married 1955 Judy Levi (three sons, one daughter); died London 8 May 2004.

Ronald Bernstein was among the first to appreciate that the successful modern barrister must be a specialist; and he developed his practice principally in the field of landlord and tenant.

During the 1970s Bernstein established himself as the doyen of the landlord and tenant bar. Property, particularly commercial property, was becoming more and more important as an investment vehicle for insurance companies and pension funds. Bernstein was in the forefront of advocates for a modern commercial approach to the law, especially in an area bedevilled by technicalities stretching back to Tudor times and beyond. In two landmark cases in the 1970s and 1980s he successfully persuaded Lord Denning to abandon "out-dated relics of medieval law".

He was a commanding presence in court: a well-modulated voice, with only a trace of Welsh; a style by turns conversational and rhetorical; a finely crafted turn of phrase, and the aquiline profile of a Roman emperor.

Under Bernstein's leadership, his chambers, then at 11 King's Bench Walk and now practising at Falcon Chambers, became the pre-eminent set of chambers specialising in property law. His recruits now include a Lord Justice of Appeal, a judge of the Chancery Division and seven currently practising Queen's Counsel.

Bernstein was born in Pontypridd, South Wales, in 1918, where his parents had a draper's shop. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Swansea, where Ronald grew up. He was the first in his family to go to grammar school; but he left at 15 to join the family business.

However, life as a draper was not for Ronald Bernstein, and he decided to apply to Oxford University to read Law. The story is told that, with characteristic honesty, he told the invigilator that the Latin passage he was required to translate unseen was in fact a passage he had seen before. He was asked to translate a different passage, but could not make head or tail of it, and handed in a blank paper. He was accepted by Balliol nevertheless, though not for his skills in Latin. He joined the Middle Temple in 1938, but, because of the Second World War, it was not until 1948 that he was called to the Bar.

In the meantime, Bernstein had joined the Royal Artillery in September 1939, and was commissioned in May 1940. In 1942 he volunteered for duty in an Air Observation Post Squadron of the RAF, spotting enemy ground positions to guide the artillery. It was an extremely dangerous activity. Bernstein saw service in North Africa and in Italy. He was well known for his ability to land his aircraft in apparently inaccessible places. Bernstein's was the first British plane to fly in Italy.

His courage and skill earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service during and after the Salerno landings. It is said that he was the first member of the Royal Artillery to win the DFC. He was promoted to Major, Squadron Commander in 1945, and was finally demobilised in 1946.

Bernstein's war service was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Italy; and during a spell in hospital there, while recovering from a leg wound, he learnt Italian from an elderly journalist, by writing her a love letter every day.

After demobilisation Bernstein resumed his legal studies, and began practice in the chambers of Heathcote Williams KC at 11 King's Bench Walk. It was to remain his professional home until he retired in 1985.

Bernstein developed a fine reputation as an advocate, and he took silk, belatedly, in 1969. In 1975 he became head of his chambers; and in the same year he was elected a Bencher of Middle Temple. Bernstein was a democratic autocrat, or perhaps an autocratic democrat. Every junior member of chambers was given his or her say, but no decision was ever made of which he disapproved. The velvet glove was so thick and smooth that no one noticed the iron fist within.

As head of chambers, Bernstein introduced another first. His was the first set of chambers to pay pupil barristers. Although this innovation was received with suspicion by the practising Bar, the practice he began is now compulsory. This innovation was typical of Bernstein's generosity and belief in the young.

His practice in commercial property had brought him into contact with many valuers, and this led him to his next innovation. He inaugurated the annual series of Blundell Memorial Lectures, named in honour of his predecessor as head of chambers Lionel Blundell, which were the first series of multi-disciplinary lectures on current problems in property law. Bernstein himself gave many stimulating and perspicacious lectures. Twenty-nine years on, they are still a highlight in the professional calendar.

Such were Bernstein's links with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors that he became an Honorary Member in 1982 and a Vice-President in 1986: both firsts for a practising barrister. Arising out of his expertise in commercial property, he published the Handbook of Rent Review in 1981. It was a handbook only in name. It is still the standard reference work; and the hands needed to lift it can only belong to a giant.

On his retirement from practice, Bernstein became active as an arbitrator. He became Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in 1988, and when he left the Council in 1991 he was awarded the title "Vice-President Emeritus". His Handbook of Arbitration (1987) is now in its fourth edition.

Bernstein also had a wide hinterland. His enthusiasms were many: Oriental rugs, fine wines, computer technology and his beloved Romito, a fattoria in Tuscany where he spent many family holidays. Having led a protest over traffic in Highgate, where he lived for many years, he went on to found the Highgate Society in 1966 and became its President in 1983; a position he held for 10 years.

Ronald Bernstein was a committed Reform Jew. He combined his professional expertise and his religious commitment, by advising the Israeli judiciary on arbitration. When he came to design his coat of arms, he chose for his motto, in Hebrew, the saying of the first-century sage Hillel: "If I am only for myself, what am I?" He is said to have begun his Reader's address at Middle Temple in 1992: "When I started at the Bar, I was told to look British and think Yiddish, but my problem has always been . . ." The audience dissolved in laughter, and his problem went unheard.

Laughter was one of Bernstein's most enduring characteristics, and no one who knew him can ever forget his shoulders shaking as he laughed.

In 1955 he married Judy Levi and they had four children and 10 grandchildren, the youngest of whom was born the day before Bernstein died.

Kim Lewison