Geoffrey Robertson QC: The Great Defender

One man stands between Julian Assange and extradition. Fortunately for the WikiLeaks founder, he is a barrister whose brilliance has won some of the defining legal battles of the age

"Openness is conducive to better government." Those words might have come from Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who was arrested and detained in London this week, pending extradition to Sweden accused of rape.

But, as chance would have it, they can be found in the memoirs of the man who stands between Assange and prosecution abroad: Geoffrey Robertson QC.

But of course chance has nothing to do with it. Those who have followed Robertson's career will not have been surprised to see the QC cutting short his holiday to come to the defence of his fellow Australian. The case of the WikiLeaks founder, combining as it does high liberal principle, low scandal and massive publicity, might have been designed with Robertson specifically in mind.

To Robertson "justice is the great game 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 the laws of battle will prevent Goliath from siding up and hitting him on the head".

Robertson has said nothing since he took on the brief. But it seems a safe bet that the QC sees in Assange (a man who powerful American politicians have suggested should be hunted down like a terrorist) something of an outgunned David. And if anyone can prevent Assange being unfairly hit on the head by powerful forces it is Robertson.

Geoffrey Ronald Robertson was born in 1946 and grew up in a comfortable home in the Sydney suburbs. He was inspired to enter the law on reading reports of the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial at the Old Bailey and, in particular, the performance of the defending barrister, Gerald Gardiner.

Afflicted by heavy acne as a teenager, he didn't socialise much and developed the habits of a workaholic. After Epping Boys High School came a law degree at Sydney University. Robertson was an earnest student, with, in his own words, "a detached and slightly puritanical outlook".

He arrived in UK in 1970 expecting his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to be a "pleasant diversion" before beginning a career at the Sydney Bar. But Oz, ironically enough for an Australian in England, intervened. In Oxford, Robertson met fellow Australian expat Richard Neville, the publisher of an underground satirical magazine of that name. Oz had been charged with "a conspiracy to corrupt public morals" for featuring a cartoon of a tumescent Rupert Bear. Neville and Robertson got on and the young lawyer was given the job of preparing Neville's legal defence.

Although the defence failed, Robertson decided that his future lay in Britain. He was eventually called to the bar 1973 and embarked on a remarkable career. Cause célèbre followed cause célèbre. In 1978 he defended two journalists who had been accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act when they interviewed a former intelligence officer. The acquittal of the journalists was a landmark victory for press freedom. Robertson went on to defend Gay News and the National Theatre from the legal assaults of Mary Whitehouse. These trials – and their outcome – helped to deliver the coup de grâce to cultural censorship in Britain.

Thereafter Robertson's focus shifted to human rights and holding governments to account. In the 1990s he defended the four directors of the machine tools manufacturer Matrix Churchill who were accused of illegally supplying arms to Saddam Hussein. The trial collapsed after the judge rejected attempts by the government to suppress key documents. And a subsequent judicial inquiry found that the ministers had actually encouraged the arms sales. Robertson was at centre stage again when he defended The Guardian against the libel suit brought by Neil Hamilton, the Tory MP accused by the paper of taking cash to ask questions in the Commons.

There was other less high-profile, but no less important, work too. As a QC he prosecuted the Malawian dictator Hastings Banda and defended dissidents detained by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. He appeared in many Caribbean death sentence appeals at the Privy Council. And in 2002 came a move from defence to judgment, when Robertson served as a judge on the United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Robertson's private life has been as eventful as his public one. But his marriage to the wisecracking Australian novelist Kathy Lette has kept him close to the media spotlight, even when not in the court. The two met in Brisbane 20 years ago filming an episode of Robertson's long-running Australian current affairs television programme Hypotheticals. Both were in relationships at the time, Robertson with the future television chef Nigella Lawson, and Lette married to the Australian television executive Kim Williams. "Opposites attract" is Robertson's explanation of the unlikely union of the crusading liberal barrister and the author of such works as Foetal Attraction and Men – A User's Guide.

The couple have two children, Georgina and Julius, who, Robertson admitted in an interview last year, have urged their father to slow down. Robertson told Peter Thompson of the Australian channel ABC: "It's all very well to say seize the day, do everything you can. It does take a toll. One day something will hit me, maybe a stroke."

He is not joking. Simply to read Robertson's schedule is enough to bring on fatigue. As well as his practice work and sitting on the Sierra Leone tribunal, Robertson has written three books in the past five years including a polemic calling for the prosecution of the Pope and a scholarly historical work on John Cooke, the barrister who took on the task of prosecuting Charles I after the Civil War (a job one senses the author himself would have relished).

Robertson is not to everyone's taste. Right-wingers dislike his liberal campaigning. Catholics have been irked by his Pope-baiting. And Robertson's long-standing support for humanitarian military interventionism as a means of bringing war criminals and human rights abusers to justice has led him to a somewhat awkward position on Iraq. In the 2006 edition of his book Crimes Against Humanity he speaks of "the moral rightness of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and the wrongfulness in law of the means used to accomplish it" with the implication that George Bush's mistake was merely to use the wrong justification for the invasion.

At times he has allowed his eye for publicity to override his legal judgement. In 2003, The Guardian, urged on by Robertson, brought a legal challenge against the 1848 Treason Felony Act, which makes it an offence to call for the abolition of the monarchy. Throwing out the case, Lord Scott noted that Robertson was "a very good lawyer" but that the case lacked "common sense" since there was never a realistic prospect of someone being prosecuted under the act. There are legitimate questions about his methods too. If Robertson wants to change society, it might be asked, should he not have stood for election rather than seeking to do so through judicial activism?

That is an argument that Robertson would dismiss as the old fallacy he encountered at university in Australia: the idea that the law is simply a system for applying rules drawn up by legislators. Robertson has always been guided by a very different star. In his memoirs, he describes how, in his view, the law can serve as a "lever for liberation". It is a philosophy to which his entire career, whether in the courtroom, the television studio, or in print, has been devoted. And if Robertson can lever Julian Assange, another campaigner for openness in public life, out of custody it will surely go down as the QC's most notable triumph yet.

A life in brief

Born: Geoffrey Ronald Robertson, 30 September 1946.

Education: Epping Boys High School, Sydney University, Oxford University.

Family: Married to the novelist Kathy Lette. Two children, Georgina and Julius.

Career: Barrister since 1973, Queen's Counsel 1988, founder of Doughty Street Partners 1990, appeal judge on United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-2007.

He says: "Justice is the great game because it provides the opportunity of winning against the most powerful, and against the state itself."

They say: "Robertson appears to want vengeance." Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, a Catholic weekly

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