Cherie's chambers in race for Euro law millions

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The Independent Online

Two of the country's most high-profile Queen's Counsel - one the man who represented the family of Stephen Lawrence, the other the wife of the Prime Minister - are locked in a symbolic battle to build Britain's leading human rights chambers.

Two of the country's most high-profile Queen's Counsel - one the man who represented the family of Stephen Lawrence, the other the wife of the Prime Minister - are locked in a symbolic battle to build Britain's leading human rights chambers.

The high stakes have led Michael Mansfield QC and Cherie Booth QC to use tactics more usually associated with banking and big business. In recent weeks, Tooks Court and Matrix, the respective chambers represented by the two, have poached a string of lawyers from their rivals using simple tactics: money.

At stake is an estimated £100m worth of human rights work triggered by the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights in October. The moves follow a government pledge last month to underwrite the new litigation to the tune of £40m.

Ms Booth's chambers, set up under a human rights banner in May, has already signed up a number of big names, including Michael Beloff QC, a family friend of the Blairs, who is expected to join Matrix next year. Mr Beloff, president of Trinity College, Oxford, advised the former minister Geoffrey Robinson about his offshore trust.

Other stars include Nicholas Blake QC, the barrister who in 1993 helped Judith Ward overturn her conviction for the M62 coach bombing, the human rights expert Ben Emmerson, who has helped to train judges in the new Human Rights Act, and Clare Montgomery QC, a leading silk in criminal law and serious fraud who represented the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Yesterday Matrix announced the arrival of three more barristers, including Janet Kentridge, the daughter-in-law of Sir Sydney Kentridge, the South African barrister who acted for the anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko in the Seventies.

Mr Mansfield, the £500,000-a-year civil rights lawyer whose name has become synonymous with miscarriages of justice, has recruited eight barristers, including the highly respected Lawrence Kershen QC, from his former chambers, Cloisters.

The top barristers at Matrix and 14 Tooks Court command annual earnings of £300,000 upwards. Even the juniors earn £100,000.

Barristers are now convinced that the highest fees will become focused on just a few big-name chambers specialising in human rights cases A report last month by the Bar Council identified this as one of the greatest fears facing the profession as smaller practices are squeezed out. The application of market forces has left Mr Mansfield and Ms Booth clear winners. From a standing start Matrix now has 32 barristers and Tooks Court, founded by Mr Mansfield at the height of the miners' strike in 1984, has gone from 35 to 47 in a year.

The losers are the former chambers of Mr Mansfield and Ms Booth. Cloisters, once the leading human rights chambers, has had to reposition itself as a specialist civil law practice with no criminal expertise.

Matrix, which has taken three lawyers from Cloisters, has mostly recruited its barristers from Ms Booth's old chambers, 4-5 Grays Inn Square, and Geoffrey Robertson's set, Doughty Street. To counter the loss, 4-5 Gray's Inn has managed to recruit George Carman QC, the best-known libel silk in the country.

A well-known human rights solicitor, who uses barristers at the chambers of Geoffrey Robertson, Cherie Booth and Michael Mansfield, said of Matrix and Tooks Court: "These two chambers have elbowed their way into pole position just before the Human Rights Act is expected to bring in a flood of new work."

There seems little love lost between Matrix and Tooks Court. Mr Mansfield's senior clerk, Martin Parker, said of Matrix: "They have set themselves up as a specialist [chambers]. That's fine. But this could be misrepresented because [human rights] is not a discipline in itself."

Nick Martin, chief executive of Matrix, said: "We are about much more than just human rights and we are getting fed up with people saying we are cashing in."