‘The law,’ according to W.S. Gilbert’s Lord Chancellor, ‘is the true embodiment of everything that’s excellent’ and, by common consent, Michael Beloff QC has been one of the prime exemplars of that excellence over the past 50 years. While he may not enjoy the profile of contemporaries such as Helena Kennedy, Michael Mansfield and Geoffrey Robertson, the Times, on his retirement, described him as ‘one of the great ornaments of the Bar’, and he himself notes that he has argued more than 475 reported cases (a lawyer’s way of assessing their significance). In a more dubious honour, he has appeared in two novels by his friend Jeffrey Archer.
He explains that ‘this is a memoir about my quasi-public and not my private life’, so there is barely a mention of his wife and children, although a measure of domestic detail might have leavened the narrative. He writes more fully about his ancestry – highly distinguished, given its putative descent, through the 16th-century Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, from the biblical King David. More immediately, his father was Max Beloff, a fellow of All Souls and founding father of the University of Buckingham. His aunt was the political journalist Nora Beloff.
After a stellar career at Eton and Oxford, he joined Gray’s Inn at the same time as Tariq Ali. The meat of the book is an account of his long career at the Bar. He abandoned criminal work early on, so there are ‘no titillating tales of murder or mayhem’. Instead, there are exhaustive records of his more significant – but less engrossing – involvement in immigration and employment law, and of his late-life incarnation as ‘the Godfather of Sports Law’, representing athletes including John Conteh and Tessa Sanderson and arbitrating at the Olympics.
He writes that ‘my taste was for a rapid turnover of cases, rather than for incarceration in long cases’ and applies the same principle to his prose, preferring to describe the range of his cases rather than exploring them in depth. It is frustrating to know nothing about the circumstances in which he represented the Moors murderer Ian Brady. Although he may be bound by professional confidentiality, it would be interesting to learn what he thought of some of his more controversial clients, in particular the Church of Scientology, whose claim for recognition as a religion he supported in an official report, notwithstanding its belief in an invasion of Earth by the intergalactic forces of Xenu 75 million years ago.
After 30 years at the Bar, he became president of Trinity College, Oxford. This ‘slower pace of life’ is reflected in the slower pace of the narrative, as he describes his pastoral, administrative and fund-raising activities, along with his eclectic range of guests, including Kenneth Clarke, John Thaw, Chelsea Clinton and Jeanette Winterson – who ‘to my surprise, kissed me on both cheeks’. He also expounds his admissions policy of soliciting applicants from the widest possible backgrounds but then selecting them solely on academic potential.
Much of the book, with its discussion of the technicalities of chambers regulations, the clerking system, fee assessment and the ‘cab rank rule’ (the requirement that any competent barrister not otherwise engaged or conflicted ‘must appear for any client willing and able to pay an appropriate fee’), will be of greater appeal to the law student than the general reader. The latter will be more taken with Beloff’s quandary over providing a character reference for Archer, and his gossip about Cherie Booth, whom he recruited to his chambers and for whose speeches he supplied jokes.
Early in the book he acknowledges the frailty of memory when, as an Oxford student, he was called to appear as a prosecution witness in the case of a bus driver charged with dangerous driving. I must therefore point out an egregious example of his own. When writing of his role in the libel case brought by the actress Charlotte Cornwell against the journalist Nina Myskow, he notes that he had to cross-examine Ian McKellen, who had appeared in an ‘Edward Bond play as an Ancient Briton who had to simulate being buggered by a Roman soldier’. The play in question was by Howard Brenton and McKellen was not in the cast.
By the end of the book, one feels greater admiration for Beloff’s illustrious career than his account of it.