Law: Farewell to a non-fat cat

Benedict Birnberg is closing his files for good. Will we ever see his like again?

Linda Tsang
Thursday 25 February 1999 00:02

For over 40 years, from his cramped offices on Borough High Street, solicitor Benedict Birnberg has acted for clients ranging from the eccentric to the eclectic - from high-profile cases such as Derek Bentley, Richard Branson and Vanessa Redgrave, to the "unfashionable", as the solicitor himself describes Moors murderer Ian Brady. But from April, Mr Birnberg will retire from the firm that he set up in 1962 just along the same street. The firm was considered innovative at the time, as a general practice with a radical bent. He says that he has always been an advocate of general practice - covering everything from matrimonial to conveyancing and criminal defence work and charities - in fact, clients who have come to him for their conveyancing have been genuinely surprised to find that their unprepossessing solicitor is also a doughty defender of civil liberties.

The 68-year-old solicitor concedes that times have changed. "I really felt that I had had enough. Not only that, there are radical changes coming in the profession and, frankly, it needs younger people to face the music."

Once he retires, the firm will concentrate on the area of criminal defence, such as miscarriages of justice, and civil actions against the police, and immigration. He credits his partner Gareth Peirce, who recently turned down a CBE, with building up the firm's reputation in these areas: "She has followed in my footsteps with a vengeance." The firm's Borough High Street office will close, and Peirce, who has acted for the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and is currently advising the accused Britons in Yemen, will take over as senior partner of the firm, running it from the Camden office as Birnberg Peirce & Co.

Mr Birnberg adds that his retirement has not come as a great surprise to the others in the firm: "I have been out of sorts with the way the legal profession will have to be organised, and more particularly, I have been resisting for some time the tendency in the firm to focus on those core specialist areas, instead of keeping it as a general practice."

According to leading civil liberties barrister Michael Beloff QC, who was involved in giving advice for Ian Brady, Mr Birnberg's retirement will be "a significant departure of an important figure". He adds: "The legal profession is a very broad church. It is entirely desirable that there are people who have a commitment to civil rights, and Benedict Birnberg is someone who is right at the other end from the fat cats."

The decision to retire has put Mr Birnberg in reflective mood. In preparation for this interview, he has "scribbled some notes down" on a scrap of A4 paper, on the "more interesting cases". He is planning to write about those cases in a more coherent form, but it will not be a conventional autobiography, as the emphasis will be on the interesting rather than just the well-known cases. The impression is that having to put his experiences down on paper, the wide range of cases have surprised even him.

He recalls his first meeting with Ian Brady, who was introduced as a client through long-time friend Lord Longford. "Brady was in a terrible state in prison - he looked like a skeleton coming out of a Nazi concentration camp." Using an internal Home Office psychiatrist's report, which recommended that Brady be moved to a mental hospital, Mr Birnberg started an action against the Home Office in the early 1980s and succeeded in having Brady moved to Park Lane (now Ashworth), where he has been since 1985.

Mr Birnberg also mentions, since he has jotted them down, a string of public order cases in which he acted, such as Sweet v Parsley, which went to the House of Lords and changed the law with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Brutus v Cozens, and Papworth v Coventry, which have made it into posterity as reported cases. He also acted in the Princess of Wales "stalker" case for Martin Stenning, and for Wandsworth Prison escapee George Blake.

His first civil liberties case, in the early 1960s, was for the CND leader George Clark, who led a demonstration against the Greek Royal family. And it was his involvement in another Greek-related case which led him to meet his wife-to-be in 1964. He tells the story rather proudly that she, while a student at the London School of Economics, was one of 50 demonstrators outside the Greek embassy. She was arrested and given a conditional discharge, but had to spend a night in Holloway prison.

His own decision to go into law was influenced by his uncle, Norman Bentwich, a barrister who went on to become Attorney General of Mandatory Palestine and later became professor of international law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His grandfather had also been a solicitor, then a barrister, at the turn of the century. His father was a maths teacher and his mother ran a small private school: "It was the wider family connection, particularly my uncle's career, that made law the option."

He read history at Cambridge and did his articles in a small, traditional firm which had offices in Croydon and also Soho Square in central London. He even spent time at Coward Chance (now commercial law giant Clifford Chance): "But I hated it, it wasn't for me. I was glad to get out and set up my own practice."

Four decades on, if anyone stands out from his time as a lawyer, it is Iris Bentley. "She has played a large part in my professional life. She was unique in fighting such a courageous campaign against such adversity - her health, the humiliations at the hands of the Home Office, and all in the face of such cynicism, even from those who were sympathetic. It is the saddest of things that she died just before we got to the stage where the conviction was quashed. I remember the father, William Bentley, coming into the office in 1975 (he died later that week) to give me a painting of Fishmonger's Hall. He felt a debt of gratitude because I never charged them, and I told him that I would do everything I could." The painting is still in his office.

His retirement will not mean an end to his activities. Apart from writing up his "interesting cases", he will continue working with a wide number of charities, including Prisons Video, the Prison Reform Trust, Article 19, and as company secretary for War on Want. He will also continue with the charities that he has helped to set up, such as the Caroline Walker Trust, and the Butler Trust.

He will also spend more time campaigning, with "maverick" MP Austin Mitchell, for a National Legal Service. He has already made submissions to the Lord Chancellor. "Needless to say, I'm a very old acquaintance of the Lord Chancellor, I think I gave him one of his first legal aid briefs - possibly the only one he has ever had."

Mr Birnberg argues that "access to justice is as vital as health or education. I have proposed that the Government try some pilot schemes of salaried lawyers as a mixture of private funding and some public funding, which should be attractive to an administration that advocates public-private partnerships. It has not yet been picked up seriously, but there are inklings in the Access to Justice Bill currently going through Parliament."

In his 69th year, the solicitor and his firm will have a lasting influence. His career has spanned almost two thirds of his life, during which time there have been the most radical of changes in the law, and in lawyers. The articled clerks who have been at the firm include Paul Boateng, Gareth Peirce, and Imran Khan, who acts for Stephen Lawrence's family. Director of Liberty, John Wadham, who also worked at the firm , says: "Ben Birnberg has been an inspiration, not only to me, but to a whole generation of civil rights lawyers."

After 40 years, he has enjoyed his practice - he considers the fact that he has been quite emotionally involved with many of his clients as one of his strengths: "I am a protagonist rather than a mediator. I wouldn't have made a very good judge, and had no ambition in that direction." He describes himself as "really very conservative - with a small `c' - in a number of ways, or rather, a radically-minded conservative".

In the final weeks leading up to his retirement, Benedict Birnberg is not winding down. This evening, wearing a far-from-conservative tie (a present from his daughter), he will be attending a party for the musician Lou Adler's 85th birthday at Stringfellow's - which is no doubt the ideal venue for any radically-minded conservative lawyer.

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