Friday, 7 September 2012

On being distinguished: a story about an 'influential lawyer'

I first heard I was among The Times ‘Top 100 Lawyers’ on Twitter.

I don’t read the paper, in fact have always treated it as a polemical tract only lightly disguised by learning, so I might never have known. (Not many of my friends read the paper either.)

But there I was, my eleven letters and space among the 140 characters in an enthusiastic Tweet.

One of the ‘Top 100’?

I was excited, and also intrigued. Where was I in the Pantheon? My pulse raced. Maybe even ‘Top Ten’? And what did they say about me? Perhaps there was a profile, interviews with grateful students from the past, a picture even! My mind raced to construct the sort of praise that would finally do me full justice. And deliciously, who was not on? One hundred was not very many - letters of sympathy to the disappointed were for a nano-second of triumphalism forming before me as a real option: ‘Dear Geoffrey, I was so sorry to read in The Times of your omission from the list of top lawyers. I think that is quite wrong, or at very least they should have included the next 100. Let me just say that had I been asked I’d have certainly offered my place to you. Yours, Conor’.

But where to get the paper?

It was late. Left any longer it might disappear into that black hole which is yesterday’s news. I headed off with the dog, eventually finding and buying a copy, but furtively, eschewing my usual (and already purchased) Guardian and reaching into the tabloids as though I were buying Playboy or Penthouse and not the Old Thunderer itself. Good it had the law section; great there was the article - hold on - it’s a bit short. Let’s get home.

Disappointment awaited.

The ‘paper’ paper only had the greatest hits among the 100, the Shami’s and the Brenda Hales, the household names and not the whole bunch. To get these, readers were directed to The Times web-site, which I already knew was hidden from public view, protected by a ‘fire-wall’ demanding payment for entry. I ran upstairs, credit-card in my hand, intent on buying that day before the day ran out - surely only a pound or two.

It wasn’t as simple as that. Reading The Times’s home-page felt like being assailed by a computerised Big Issue vendor crossed with a snake-oil salesman.

You couldn’t buy one; you had to buy a package, involving The Times - possibly for weeks on end, maybe for ever! - and potentially much else besides. There was one moment when I was a button away from Sky’s supreme package which would have led to a Dish on the roof the next morning and cycling live from Budapest in the afternoon. (This was before I had heard of Bradley Wiggins.) None of it was as cheap as buying the newspaper in a shop. I wavered. What was it to be: the minimum package to get at today’s paper, or forget the whole thing. At that very moment I learned something important about myself: I am more mean than I am big-headed. I left it.

That is not to say I did not brood.

Why on the web, with more space, my profile might be longer, even more fulsome, the picture finer?

And the nagging thought I might be ‘top ten’ ate away at me.

Eventually I hit on a plan. I asked the Press Office at LSE (which I knew must be a subscriber) to find and send me the article. Brilliant: money saved and ego massaged. As The Times didn’t allow electronic escapes from their prison of news, this meant I had to wait for an old-fashioned print out to reach my LSE box via the internal mail. The tension!

Eventually the internal envelope arrived, thinner than I’d have expected for an article detailing the talents of one hundred - perhaps they had sent me just the bit about me?

No, this was it.

No organisation of names into any particular order. Just a jumble of people, some I’d heard off some I hadn’t. And there under G, me - and the single explanation for my appearance: ‘Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, LSE’ - a job I gave up three years ago. Horror: I shouldn’t have been there at all! Never mind, no one reads the paper and if I keep quiet my secret is safe.

A month later I had to pitch for a pay rise, as do all profs at LSE on an annual basis. In filling in the form I tried to remember what on earth could justify me getting more money for the job I love doing anyway. Yes, that’s it, I am a top 100 lawyer. I am ashamed to say I put it in. And yesterday I got the letter declining to give me the extra money I didn’t deserve anyway. Never mind, the letter was as warm and gentle a rejection letter as you are ever likely to get: ‘The accolade of recognition as one the United Kingdom’s one hundred most influential lawyers brings great credit to you personally and to the School.’ Good job they don’t read the electronic Times either.

Monday, 13 August 2012


Shortly before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron launched the Conservative Party’s Annual Human Rights Report. In it the Party called in exemplary fashion for an increase in human rights protection around the world. Introducing the Party leader, a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a former child soldier) praised the Party’s emphasis on ‘responsibilities’ as well as ‘rights’. He then went on to give a moving endorsement of British law, and in particular the Human Rights Act without which – he went on to say – his claim to asylum would never have been successful.


No one had told him the Conservatives wanted to repeal the Act, that human rights were for everybody – except those over whom this Party hoped to be able to exercise control.

This kind of double-standard is par for the course so far as human rights are concerned.

The more powerful a state is the easier it finds it to be hypocritical in its conduct without any serious risk of this being noticed or mattering very much if it is.

- For years the US has lectured the world on human rights and occasionally started revolutions elsewhere on the basis of them, all the while resolutely refusing any proper critique of its own human rights record, at home or abroad. (This is not just the obvious – Guantanamo and so on – but extends to such basics as childrens rights and the death penalty and much else besides.)

- Israel is keen to advertise its ‘western values’ through its special trading relationship with the EU and its participation in such events as the Eurovision song context and various European football competitions – but we hear very little from this beacon of democracy and human rights about agitating to be allowed to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights with its judicial oversight from Strasbourg – which for example even Turkey and Russia have managed to do.

Now the Vatican has joined the list of places which talk a good human rights game abroad but can hardly be said to be practising what it preaches at home.

Towards the end of May the Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested, or so it was eventually acknowledged - the Vatican doesn’t do due process like the democratic world. It seems Gabriele was then sent to the Vatican cells where he has been kept through the early months of the Summer, until a sudden announcement (from the press office, rather than any kind of judicial officer) that he had been ‘released on parole’, in fact placed on house arrest. It seems a ‘Promoter of Justice’ has now determined that charges are to be brought, and it seems it will then be a ‘Vatican judge who will then decide whether he will face trial or be acquitted’. According to media reports in Italy, a sentence of 6 years could be meted out, albeit at this point the butler would need to be transferred to an Italian prison. Meanwhile we are assured by Gabriele’s lawyer that the butler had acted entirely on his own and as an ‘act of love’ towards the pope.

Well what would you say, after months in a cell in the sweltering heat of the Vatican and facing a tribunal that might jail you for many years?

Let’s substitute the words ‘Beijing authorities’ here for the Vatican and ‘defiant bishop’ for ‘the Pope’s Butler’ – what a fuss the Vatican would now be making, about freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary detention, liberty of conscience, and so forth? And as for the ‘act of love’ our hypothetical Bishop is now said to be expressing towards the Communist Party – obviously unreliable, after two months in isolation in detention and with the fear of greater punishment to come?

And it has to be said that even Chinese laws are easier to access than those of the Vatican.

The web site of the Holy See takes you to a Vatican City State site, the section on the governance of which begins with the simple statement that ‘The form of government is that of an absolute monarchy’ [‘La forma di governo รจ la monarchia assoluta’]. Short summaries of the further disposition of power then appear. The ‘Fundamental Law of Vatican City State’ promulgated by John Paul II on 26 November 2000 has more on the nature of the Vatican flag than on the rights of anyone who might be affected by the exercise of executive power. Both the Holy See and the Vatican City State have signed up to various international Conventions - but these have not included anything so specific as the European Convention on Human Rights, with its prohibition on inhumane treatment, its demand for fair trials and its requirement that detention be non-arbitrary.

This insulation from European human rights norms doesn’t matter so long as they keep the butler holed up in the Vatican. But it could become important if Gabriele ends up in an Italian prison.

For Italy is bound by the Convention and - more to the point - an individual can take a case to the Strasbourg court if he or she can show him or herself to be a victim of a violation. There was a case a few years ago in which nullity proceedings in the Vatican which needed to be enforced by Italy were found wanting in a case against that country.

If Gabriele found himself languishing in an Italian prison, at the very least there would be an arguable case that the detention was unlawful, not least because the process that lead to his incarceration had been fundamentally flawed. It is impossible to tell how such a case would go – but clearly the hearings would be very embarrassing to the Vatican and its absolute ruler.

Does the Holy See want to have the Vatican state’s procedures exposed to scrutiny by the very court that has been at the forefront of establishing a secular, multi-cultural identity for Europe?

Expect a retreat by the authorities, aided and abetted by further fulsome apologies from the errant butler. Rome can go back to holding forth on the international stage safe in the knowledge that it has avoided scrutiny of its own behaviour. But a nasty taste of hypocrisy will remain hanging in the air.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Conor Gearty, Liberty and Security (Polity Press, forthcoming)

All aspire to liberty and security in their lives but few people truly enjoy them. This book explains why this is so. In what Gearty calls our 'neo-democratic' world, the proclamation of universal liberty and security is mocked by facts on the ground: the vast inequalities in supposedly free societies; the authoritarian regimes with regular elections; and the terrible socio-economic deprivation camouflaged by cynically proclaimed commitments to human rights.

Conor Gearty's book is an explanation of how this has come about, providing also a criticism of the present age which tolerates it. He then goes on to set out a manifesto for a better future, a place where liberty and security can be rich platforms for everyone's life.

The book identifies neo-democracies as those places which play at democracy so as to disguise the injustice at their core. Nor is it just the new 'democracies' that have turned 'neo'; the so-called established democracies are hurtling in the same direction, as is the United Nations.

A new vision of universal freedom is urgently required. Drawing on scholarship in law, human rights and political science this book argues for just such a vision; one in which the great achievements of our democratic past are not jettisoned as easily as were the socialist ideals of the original democracy-makers.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Reflections on last night's law night at Occupy LSX

The discussion at Occupy LSX last night was about the role of law in seeking to change the way we understand the society in which we find ourselves.

Interestingly there was far less cynicism about law that there would have been twenty years ago. The excellent David Allen Green produced an anthem to law-adherence which was applauded rather than booed down (as it might have been not so long ago). David was right to remind us that lawlessness is something the rich and powerful are more adept at and able to do with greater impunity, so that we need to be very careful before we write off the rule of law - it remains as David said (quoting the great radical historian E P Thompson) ‘an unqualified public good’.

Why did the rule of law get such an easy ride?

I’d say this is because of the transformation we have seen in the English judiciary in the past two decades, moving from the blind defenders of the status quo that I recall when I first starting teaching civil liberties (in the Thatcher era) to the more nuanced, thoughtful people you encounter on the Bench at the present time.

An example of this was the Occupy LSX appeal in the Court of Appeal (decision on the case due on Wednesday) - it went very well from the occupiers’ point of view:

- they were treated with respect
- their lawyer (John Cooper QC) was warmly congratulated for having taken on the case
- the human rights issues were given time to be developed
- the individual litigants themselves had the chance of a ‘day in court’ that felt meaningful to them and was not just a charade.

This is all excellent news. But it does not mean that the appeal will succeed. I would still say the odds are stacked against.

And of course the judges might change again, losing the humanity which has marked recent appointments and reverting to hard-nosed type (historically the norm).

As we await the Court's ruling in the St Paul's case....

how do we define success?

Already the brave and extraordinary discipline shown by Occupy LSX, the organisational strength of the movement and its intelligent engagement with the issues have marked it out as a triumph. The case - taken against them of course and not by them - has been turned into a public soapbox, giving them a chance to explain their point of view and counter the demonization to be found elsewhere, in some of the Tabloid media, among the more hard-nosed City types and even - saddest of all - in St Paul’s itself where a noisy commitment to social justice has been shown to be risibly skin-deep.

Last night’s event was full of hope - hope that society can be transformed; hope that our culture can find the levels of solidarity that it so desperately needs; hope that equality can be achieved rather than merely spoken about.

But this hope never collapsed into utopian illusion.

Nor did it threaten at any time to morph into a cynical aggressiveness towards a public who refuse to share the dream.

There was an intelligent awareness of the time dreams take to be realised, of the hard work that utopia demands and of the need to be there for the long haul. Minds are not changed by singular actions, however singular. They are changed when society comes to regard these singular actions as the rule rather than the exception, when common sense shifts onto the side of the erstwhile heretic. This can take a long time or happen very quickly indeed. But it can always happen. No situation is so bad that dreams - with courage, determination and patience - cannot be realised.

I was proud to be involved last night and honoured to have been asked to speak.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Reflections on yesterday's ruling on the St Paul's Protest

All flourishing Christian organisations need to steer a careful course between mammon and morality.

On the one hand there is the wealth, power and influence that flow out of such success, especially if it is millennia old (as with the Roman Catholic church) or backed by the state (as with Anglicanism): how can one bite the hand that feeds one if the food is so good and one’s corpulent body now so dependant? On the other hand there is the unsettling example of Jesus himself – uninterested in money; contemptuous of luxury and of worldly power; devoted to the needy (or as we would say today the disadvantaged).

Some churches solve this problem by assimilating mammon to morality - the good are good because they are rich, and vice versa. This is too obviously special pleading for the more thoughtful faiths for whom, however, the problem remains: how can they be rich and radical at the same time?

These churches usually manage to side-step this dilemma by using their knack of fine rhetoric to call upon others to act. A prime example is the Report Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today issued by the St Paul’s Institute in November last year, an excellent critique of the ethical emptiness of global capital out of the mouths of financial services practitioners themselves.

But by the time this Report came out, the Occupy LSX camp had arrived at St Pauls, sparking a crisis of identity for the great Cathedral that supports this ‘challenging and well-resourced space for conversation’ (as the Archbishop of Canterbury had described the Institute in June 2010).

With eviction proceedings to remove the camp having yesterday produced a judgment against the occupy group, things are likely to get worse before they get better for the cathedral. At the back of everyone’s mind will be the feeling that a rare opportunity has been missed for an heroic religious engagement, for action as well as words.

It had all begun so promisingly.

The camp had only arrived at St Pauls in October last year when the stock exchange proved impenetrable. The police did not initially act, and the Cathedral itself – in the ebullient and civil libertarian form of the Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser – was positively supportive. Services continued. The talk was of a presence until Christmas. Early compromises allowed visits to the Cathedral to continue. The peaceful nature of the protest was acknowledged by all, the atmosphere good. Treated with respect and properly self-regulated, given as Giles Fraser was later to say on Newsnight ‘nice cups of Anglican tea … and a warm embrace’, a camp such as this might well have grown into a benign witnesses to the need for radical change, as the anti-nuclear Greenham common women had done a generation before. And what a gift this would have been to a Church about to launch its critique of city capitalism.

Faced with an open goal, the senior church authorities promptly turned tail and shot into their own net.

The talk was suddenly all of health and safety and of the risk of fire. The advice of professionals in these fields was immediately accepted, leading first to closure of the Cathedral (soon shown to be quite unnecessary) and then to a legal action launched with the intention of expelling the protestors. When the latter action was suspended the more hard-nosed Corporation of London took on the job of clearing out the protestors, the custodians of the Cathedral whispering encouragement while trying to look the other way. By then the Cathedral had lost both Fraser and the Dean himself, Graeme Knowles.

The law appeared stacked against the protestors from the outset and the judgment yesterday can have come as no surprise, with both highways and planning law being deployed by the City to legitimise its effort to get the protestors removed, not just from the areas all around the Cathedral but from the Cathedral land as well.

Of course the protestors pleaded the right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act but that measure ws always unlikely greatly to assist. The European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to extend its protection to those who invade private property in the effort to get heard, and the same has now proved to be true (so far as this case is concerned) of deliberate efforts to obstruct the highway for the same purpose. Lindblom J had the job of assessing the proportionality or reasonableness of the disruption as against its value as speech - and here again the background hostility of the Cathedral was likely to weigh heavily against the Camp.

With this ruling handed down, the case is already shaping up to resemble the Dale Farm debacle, with endless litigation, media summits, appeals, further clarifications of court orders and - eventually - a nasty moment when the camp is physically dismantled by the authorities.

If and when this does come about, the Cathedral will have been primarily responsible. Had it adopted Fraser’s line, the protestors would probably be gone by now (as they had always intended), the Institute’s report on the city would be a widely admired and much read document, and the church’s commitment to economic justice would have been given a tremendous boost.


We have this spectacle of a great cathedral acting not as a focus for Christian action but as a grand religious NIMBY.

The chance to undo this damage will not come about - opportunities of the sort offered by the Occupy movement are rare. No doubt there will be many more remarks such as that of the Revd Michael Hampel, Canon Precentor who commented of the Value and Values report that "Action is a crucial goal of the protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. We hope that the telling findings of this report can provide a solid foundation for future engagement and highlight issues where action might be of mutual concern for all sides of the debate.” This kind of comment is so within the comfort zone of the Church to be indistinguishable from complacency.

At Mass at the start of January celebrating the Epiphany, Catholic Christians had Psalm 71:

‘For he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor.’

What kind of an epiphany has St Paul’s offered the world this Christmas season?