The barrister's barrister

The case list of Sir Sydney Kentridge QC has covered some of the world's defining moments. At last, says Robert Verkaik, the profession has honoured him
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Few barristers half his age can claim to be in such demand. But Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, aged 78, is still the barrister to whom the Lord Chancellor turns when he requires an advocate to extricate him from a spot of bother.

Sir Sydney's silky presentation skills have also been called on by the Bar Council to do the same for the profession in its battle with the Government over attacks on their restrictive practices.

Last week, his unique contribution to the law was finally recognised. In front of an audience of hundreds of fellow lawyers, he was presented a lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in London hosted by Jonathan Ross and sponsored by The Lawyer.

Called to the Johannesburg Bar in 1949 at the beginning of the apartheid regime, Sir Sydney built up a successful common law practice before coming to the fore during the civil rights movement of South Africa when he represented black activists including Nelson Mandela and the family of Steve Biko. He was a key member of the defence in the infamous Treason Trials, and Mandela mentions him fondly in Long Walk to Freedom.

But his greatest triumph came in his work on behalf of the family of Steve Biko who died of injuries in police custody in September 1977.

Lord Alexander of Weedon wrote of his performance: "Through remorseless and deadly cross-examination, sometimes with brilliant irony, Kentridge established that the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement had been killed by police brutality. The verdict of accidental death was seen as risible."

The case list of Sir Sydney Kentridge chronicles some of the most defining moments of the last 40 years.

He defended the P&O directors over the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, and acted for Dr Nigel Cox who was charged with murder in a case that explored the role of the law in euthanasia. For the Government he successfully resisted the attempt by Lord Rees-Mogg to frustrate the Maastricht Treaty and for the Serious Fraud Office he argued against the claim by Ernest Saunders that his trial was unfair.

In 1986, the Bar sued the Lord Chancellor (then Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone) over legal-aid fees that had not been upgraded for years.

Lord Alexander says: "This was novel ground, and the stakes were high. Kentridge was our immediate first choice as counsel. He never hesitated. His argument was firm, forceful, low-key and logical. At just the right moment he would inject a touch of acid. By the end of his opening, the Lord Chancellor's case was in shreds. Under prompting from Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice, the defence was abandoned."

Once again the Bar has asked Sir Sydney to ride to its rescue. He is now leading a committee of barristers charged with defending the Bar's alleged restrictive practices. He will have to counter arguments made by the Office of Fair Trading whose report this year questioned the need for the rank of QC and the restriction that forces the public to first instruct a solicitor before they can see a barrister.

The Bar is acutely aware that not only have they chosen a fine mind but also a barrister whom Lord Irvine also considered first choice in his own battle to overturn a sex discrimination verdict against him earlier this year. In that case, Sir Sydney almost single-handedly reversed an employment tribunal's decision that found that Lord Irvine had acted illegally by appointing his close friend Garry Hart as his special adviser.

Yesterday, Lord Irvine was quick to give praise to his winning barrister: "Sir Sydney is one of the outstanding lawyers of our age – I applaud his magnificent achievements."

But Sir Sydney has not let politics affect his strict application of what is known as the cab-rank rule, which says that barristers must take the first case that comes along.

Last year, he acted for Jeffrey Archer when he was facing expulsion and proceedings from the Conservative Party by its ethics and integrity committee.

More recently, he has been involved in one of the most controversial cases in the history of the European Court of Human Rights which opened in Strasbourg last year – the appeal of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, against the death sentence he was handed down in Turkey.

Sir Sydney Kentridge is the embodiment of the barrister's argument that substance should always prevail over style. He may lack the flair and media savvy of Michael Mansfield and George Carman, but his own understated and subtle presentation of the arguments often requires no extra dressing. After all, the greatest compliment paid to any lawyer is not praise from their colleagues but the knowledge that they would choose you to represent them in times of trouble.

Lord Alexander knows this well: "Intellectually able, logical and incisive, he inserts the rapier in a way the more deadly because it comes from such a reasonable man. Good with juries, in cross-examination, in civil trials, and in the highest Courts of Appeal. He is the perfect all-rounder."