'I fight cases, not causes'

Michael Beloff QC has long been a champion of women's rights. So why, asks Alex Wade, is he acting to preserve all-male juries in Gibraltar?
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The Independent Online

Michael Beloff QC's extra-legal interests are in abundant evidence in the drawing room of his Trinity College home. There are photographs of Beloff with renowned athletes; Matthew Pinsent, Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis and Sebastian Coe among them. In the corner is a portrait of Beloff, shortly to be unveiled and hung alongside those of former presidents of Trinity. He looks calm, relaxed and casual. A close look reveals that he is reading a newspaper report of Steve Ovett's victory over Coe in the Moscow Olympics 800m final.

If Michael Mansfield QC is stuck with his tag of "champagne socialist", Beloff, 61, who practises from Blackstone Chambers in The Temple, is probably happier with his own as "the Bar's Renaissance man". He has represented all three major political parties, acted in notorious libel trials (Gillian Taylforth) and appeared in three major public inquiries, including that into the Brixton riots of 1981. The breadth of his caseload is extraordinary, taking in controversial clients such as Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the Church of Scientology and the National Front. He has also acted for Amnesty International, and for big businessmen such as Mohamed Al Fayed, Ernest Saunders and Tiny Rowland. But behind it all - and, apparently, a little ill at ease with one recent case - is a less known commitment to women's rights.

A relatively unheralded 40th anniversary occurred in February this year; that of the admission of women to the Oxford Union. Beloff, as president of the union, was the man who first moved the motion to admit women, during his presidency in 1962. The motion was defeated. In February 1963, Beloff moved it again. This time it was successful. Beloff recalls Cherwell, the Oxford students' magazine, writing that he had cried after the defeat. With victory, he says he was "exultant".

Now, as president of Trinity, Beloff finds another celebration approaching, with the 25th anniversary next year of women being admitted to the college. He relishes the contribution made by women to Oxford life. On a tour of Trinity's grounds, he praises two sisters for their academic brilliance and a law student who is a British women's ice-skating champion.

So one wonders what his female students and clients would make of the fact that he has been acting for the Gibraltar government in its attempt to preserve what is, in effect, an all-male jury system. A Privy Council judgment in the landmark constitutional case is expected at any moment.

The case arose when a mother brought a challenge against the tradition of all-male juries in Gibraltar. Aida Rojas, 22, was seeking to sue her former boyfriend for assault, battery and false imprisonment, but objected to the matter being determined by an all-male jury. Gibraltarian law states that only men can be compelled to sit on juries; women are not forbidden, but have to volunteer. In practice, they rarely do, so there are about 6,000 men on the jury list and only 30 or so women. The likelihood of Rojas's jury containing even one woman was "remote, to say the least," according to the Chief Justice, Derek Schofield.

Whatever Beloff's personal beliefs, he had no hesitation in accepting instructions from the Gibraltar government to fight its corner. Rojas claims the system is a violation of Gibraltar's constitution. The matter has gone through Gibraltar's courts to the Privy Council, with Beloff at the helm for Gibraltar's Attorney General, Albert Trinidad. A series of ingenious counter-arguments have been raised, among them that Rojas is being discriminatory, as she is saying that an all-male jury is incapable of the requisite objectivityfor a case of this nature.

Beloff deflects criticism that his commitment to women's rights is belied by acting for the Gibraltar government, citing his sense of what it is to be a lawyer. "It's an article of faith that a lawyer should be entirely detached from his client. An advocate should never bring his personal sympathies to a case, and should never be a spokesman, in litigation, for his own views. It is a lawyer's duty to represent anyone who invites him to do so, to uphold the cab-rank principle; that's what I've always done. There is too great a danger of being a cause lawyer, as opposed to a case lawyer."

Whether Beloff's advocacy has persuaded the Privy Council, with the result that Gibraltar's all-male jury system is preserved, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the QC has cause for celebration in the area of his life in which his passion is most clearly visible: sport. A member of the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) since 1996, Beloff has been appointed to its ad hoc panel for next year's Athens Olympics; 12 international lawyers who will arbitrate over issues such as doping, eligibility and protocol. Beloff is proud to be the only CAS member who will have sat on the panel for the last three Olympics. The fact that he will have to attend the entire games is not something he resents.

Michael Beloff's own athletic prowess was rather more modest: "I was the Eton 100-yards captain, and ran for Oxford's second team." The captain of Oxford's first team was one Jeffrey Archer. Students of Trinity - and advocacy and ethics - may pause to consider the fates of the two men as they gaze on Beloff's Trinity portrait.