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Geoffrey Robertson: a law unto himself

Barrister’s autobiography bulges with names of the great and the good (and the not so good), says Robert Latham

24 August, 2018 — By Robert Latham

Geoffrey Robertson outside the Old Bailey in 1999

A STORY circulates Doughty Street Chambers as to how Geoffrey Robertson came across a newly recruited barrister in the waiting room and greeted him with the words: “Are you my cabbie?” When Amal Alamuddin joined the chambers in 2015, colleagues asked whether Robertson would offer a similar welcome to her new fiancé, George Clooney.

An autobiography, writes Robertson, is an egotistical exercise. In Rather his Own Man the reader must therefore stomach stories as to how Robertson may be descended from the illegitimate daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I; how he would have been an international tennis player had his double-handed backhand not been considered to be unacceptable; how his sexual pleasure with Nigella Lawson and Kathy Lette was diminished by his childhood genital mutilation; and how he had to use all his powers of persuasion to secure a tenancy for a young Keir Starmer who was “nervous and awkward”, “looked about 14” and was poorly dressed in a cardigan.

Robertson was born on September 30, 1946. By coincidence, this was the day of the Nuremberg judgement when the international community made the momentous promise that crimes against humanity would henceforth be deterred by the punishment of the perpetrators. Robertson played an important role in fighting for this new world order, initially as an advocate and later as an appeal judge at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The European Convention on Human Rights was to follow in 1950. Robertson ensured that these rights were real and effective, rather than merely theoretical and illusory. Earlier in his career, he successfully challenged M15’s wire-tapping of the phones of Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman when they were working for the NCCL (now Liberty).

Felix Dennis (giving the V sign) with (to the right) Richard Neville, James Anderson and Geoffrey Robertson, outside Wormwood Scrubs Prison in 1971

Robertson describes himself as a “Gladstonian Liberal”. Private Eye rather described him as an Austrian who had a vowel transplant. While students were demonstrating worldwide in 1968, Robertson was suing Sydney University over library fines and defending demonstrators. His lesson was to learn how to use the law, rather than break it.

In 1970, Robertson arrived in the UK as a Rhodes Scholar. This was a time of sexism, racism and classism at the Bar. Robertson saw his role to challenge the suffocating complacency of the British Establishment. He initially joined John Mortimer at Dr Johnston’s Buildings, whose Head of Chambers was Emlyn Hooson, the Liberal MP.

In 1990, he broke out of the confines of the four Inns of Court by setting up a new set of chambers in Doughty Street with Helena Kennedy, Louis Blom-Cooper and Gavin Millar.

Robertson took this reviewer down memory lane. In 1971, Robertson worked with David Offenbach to defend Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson who had published Oz 28: The School kids’ edition. This had been put together by a dozen bright but bored teenagers from north London comprehen­sives. The offending feature was a cartoon of Rupert Bear who had been given an erection. Convicted of obscenity, Judge Michael Argyle not only remanded the defendants in custody for psychiatric reports but then imposed prison sentences of 18 months. Dennis received only nine months because he was “very much less intelligent”. Dennis, who died in 2014, became one of Britain’s wealthiest philanthropists.

In 1976, Robertson established “entrapment” as a ground for excluding evidence in criminal cases. The Notting Hill Gate drugs squad had been recycling the drugs that they had confiscated through Cornelius Buckley. Buckley, known affectionately as “Con”, had notched up 24 arrests, for which he was awarded not only £150 each time from the Police Informants’ Fund, but also the profits of the drug sales. All proceeds were shared with the corrupt officers.

On court rather than in court, Robertson the young tennis player

In 1980, Cynthia Payne was convicted of running a disorderly house at Ambleside Avenue in Streatham. Robertson asked one too many questions by inviting the police officer to describe the middle-aged and elderly men who frequented her sex establishment. The answer elicited that there were lawyers, MPs, members of the House of Lords and vicars. This made headlines in the tabloid press, but resulted in a sentence of 18 months. The Court of Appeal reduced the sentence, attributing this “unnecessary question” to Robertson’s lack of experience. When Payne was asked why she had refused to allow Robertson to identify her famous clients, she responded: “Me morals may be low, but me ethics is higher.” She died a celebrity in 2015, aged 82.

In 1992, Robertson defended the managing director of Matrix Churchill, accused of supplying bomb-making equipment to Saddam Hussein. The defence was that this was done with the connivance of the state. When Robertson extracted an admission from Alan Clark, the trade minister, that he had been “economical with the actualite”, the case collapsed.

And these are just some of the stories. Mary Whitehouse’s moral crusade; John Stonehouse – the Labour MP who went missing off Miami Beach in 1974 only to be discovered six weeks later in Melbourne; Neil Hamilton’s libel action against the Guardian; and then there is Julian Assange…

In both Britain and abroad, an increasing number of people do not like the present and look back to a golden past. Robertson’s book is an apt reminder that this golden age never existed.

And yes, Geoffrey did mistake Tom Cruise for his wine waiter.

Rather his Own Man – In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers. By Geoffrey Robertson, Biteback, £25.
Robert Latham is a retired barrister.

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