'I fight cases, not causes'

Independent, Tuesday November 04, 2003

Michael Beloff Q.C's extra-legal interests are in abundant evidence in the drawing room of his Trinity College home. There are mementoes and photographs galore of Beloff in the company of renowned sportsmen. Matthew Pinsent, Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis and Sebastian Coe are just a few of the Olympiads gazing down on Beloff's comfortable Trinity quarters. In the corner of the room is a portrait of Beloff, shortly to be unveiled and hung alongside those of his predecessor presidents at Trinity. He looks calm, relaxed and casual. A close look reveals that Beloff is reading a newspaper report of Steve Ovett's victory over Coe in the Moscow Olympics 800m final.

If Michael Mansfield Q.C is stuck with his tag of "the champagne socialist," Beloff, who practises from Blackstone Chambers in The Temple, is probably a little happier with his own soubriquet as "the bar's Renaissance man." He has represented all three major political parties, acted in notorious libel trials (think of Gillian Taylforth and the sausage video) and appeared in three major public enquiries, 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 more politically-correct entities such as Amnesty International, and big businessmen including Mohammed Al-Fayed, Ernest Saunders and Tiny Rowland. But behind it all and superficially, at least, a little ill at ease with one recent case is a lesser-publicised 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 Oxford Union, was the man who moved the motion to admit women, first during the term of his presidency in 1962. The motion was defeated. Then, in February 1963, Beloff moved the motion again. This time it was successful. Beloff recalls Cherwell, the Oxford students' magazine, writing that he had cried after the first defeat. With victory, he says he was "exultant."

Now, as President of Trinity, Beloff finds another celebration approaching, with the 25th anniversary of women being admitted to the college falling next year. Beloff is looking forward to the anniversary and relishes the contribution made by women to Oxford life. On a tour of Trinity's grounds, he eulogises two sisters for their academic brilliance as well as a law student who happens to be the British women's ice skating champion. His is an urbane presence among the students at Trinity, perhaps rather avuncular, and sincere to a fault. Buried amid the list of achievements on his CV is an award from the Women's Defence League in 1991 for his contribution to women's rights law. And yet 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 any moment. The case arose when a young 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 expressly forbidden from jury service, but have to volunteer. In practice, they rarely do, meaning that there are currently some 6,000 men on the jury list and between just 25 and 30 women. The likelihood of Ms Rojas' case being tried by a jury containing even a single woman was "remote, to say the least," according to the Chief Justice, Derek Schofield. In one hearing in Chambers, Schofield CJ remarked that there were only three cases in living memory in which women have sat on a jury in Gibraltar, and that he himself had never seen a woman on a jury.

Whatever Beloff's natural inclinations and, in matters such as this, he refuses to mix law and politics he had no hesitation in accepting instructions from the Gibraltar government to fight its corner. Ms Rojas claims that the system in Gibraltar is a violation of Gibraltar's constitution. The matter has gone through Gibraltar's courts, all the way 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 Ms Rojas is being discriminatory, since she is saying that an all-male jury is incapable of the requisite objectivity for a case of this nature.

As the parties wait for the Privy Council's judgment, Beloff deflects criticism that his avowed 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," he says. "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."

Beloff's sense of an advocate's role was eloquently expressed in a speech given last year in Oslo, by invitation of the late President of the European Court of Human Rights, Rolf Ryssdal, before whom Beloff had appeared several times. Entitling his speech 'Advocacy A Craft Under Threat?', Beloff lamented the arrival of rights of audience for solicitors, attacked the growth of various forms of alternative dispute resolution and bemoaned the 'Americanisation' of advocacy. If all this appears to betray an underlying conservatism, there is a persuasiveness to Beloff's arguments, which come down to one thing: an abiding fidelity to the importance of oral advocacy as key to the workings of justice.

For Beloff, advocacy is the means by which the truth, in our adversarial system, is reached. A witness is tested by a skilled advocate, whose devotion to representing his client should be as sacrosanct as his sense of the rule of law. "A lawyer who gets involved with his client ends up distorting the arguments," he says. And he cautions: "Advocacy is ineffective if, however dramatic, however powerful, however erudite, it fails to persuade the decision-maker."

Whether Beloff's advocacy has persuaded the Privy Council, with the ironical (at one level, at least) result that Gibraltar's all-male jury system is preserved, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the 61-year-old Q.C 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 just been appointed to its ad hoc panel for the Athens Olympics. The panel is a collection of 12 international lawyers who will arbitrate over issues such as doping, eligibility and protocol at the 2004 Olympics, and Beloff is proud of being 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 entirety of the Olympics is not something he is resenting.

Michael Beloff's own athletic ability was rather more modest than that of the men and women whose images adorn his Trinity house. "I was the Eton 100 yards captain," he says, "and also ran for Oxford's second team." The captain of Oxford's first team at that time was one Jeffrey Archer, who, in contrast to Beloff, subsequently went on to run internationally. Students of Trinity, not to mention advocacy and ethics, may pause to consider the differing fates of the two men as they gaze upon Beloff's Trinity portrait.