Knight in shining Armani
Geoffrey Robertson’s life in the law
Geoffrey Robertson has had more than a mere brush with the law. © James Brickwood/Fairfax Syndication
Geoffrey Robertson QC is rat-a-tat-tatting at the court door, trademark silver bouffant luminous above the black silk robe swishing behind him. He is late.
It’s the hearing that riveted the international press for months – just before the News of the World scandal dramatically swept it off the front pages – and TV satellite trucks are parked rear-to-nose in a continuous line down Belmarsh Road. Woolwich Crown Court complex, in London’s south-east, is grim – a pale brick exemplar of the very worst of early ’90s civil service ‘architecture’ and a world away from the wood-and-stone romance of Central London’s Old Bailey. It takes several more raps on the door, observed with wry amusement by a waiting press queue, and a curt reminder that without him the case cannot begin before a clerk sheepishly unlocks the door to allow the defendant’s silk to join his colleagues.
The defence argument will be aggressive even if delivered in the mellifluous cadence made famous in Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals (a TV program he devised and has moderated in various countries). Robertson casts doubt on Julian Assange’s accusers and their political motives, attacks Sweden’s tradition of secret trials for sex crimes and argues that, if he is extradited, justice cannot be seen to be done. The WikiLeaks founder, motionless inside the defendant’s cage and flanked by two guards, will remain inscrutable throughout the hearings, his expression animated only when he is spoken to by the curvy, blonde barrister Jennifer Robinson.
Despite the global publicity and the heady maverick-Australian David versus the Goliath might of the United States aspects of the Assange case, it is not classic Robertson territory. There is no high principle of civil liberty at stake here, no test of legal precedent that could reshape the law. The fight is against a bog-standard European arrest warrant – a newish tool designed to facilitate extradition between European Union jurisdictions. The great majority are granted; perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Assange replaced his entire legal team just weeks before the final appeal.
“It’s a good question, why did I do it?” Robertson says. “[Assange] sought me out. Here was a young Australian up to his neck in trouble, condemned as a terrorist, with people like Sarah Palin saying he should be treated like Bin Laden – and we know what happened to him. [Assange] is not a rapist in my judgement. And it is not fair to deny him bail.
“I’m still advising him on the important matter of whether the US grand jury has power to indict him for publishing WikiLeaks. A grand jury is a medieval procedure where the suspect has no rights. Avoiding extradition is really a sideshow – he should obviously face down his accusers in Sweden but only if the trial there can be fair.”
Hard to believe but Geoffrey Ronald Robertson is 65. Even up close there is a timelessness about him. The boyish mop of hair seems always to have been silver, as familiar as the pensive, slightly hunched stride of his TV persona.
To date, he has spent 41 years of his life in England and has dual citizenship but continues to define himself as Australian, which is diplomatic when discussing the legal, and political, downsides of his birthplace. The antipodean vowels of his youth have long gone even if the jibes of the early years – from judges as well as colleagues when he was the only Australian at the English bar – have not been forgotten.
He describes a first solo appearance in Knightsbridge Crown Court as a young barrister, appearing for a company accused of manufacturing indecent T-shirts. He still spoke with what he describes as “irritable vowels”, which meant a rather nasal, short vowel sound to words such as ‘France’ and ‘branch’.
“It fell to me to explain the nature of the offending logo to a judge renowned for his rectitude and propriety. Nervously, I ventured that it read ‘Fuck art, let’s dance.’
“There was a shocked silence in court. The judge’s eyebrows narrowed with irritation. ‘Fuck art, let’s what, Mr Robertson?’ ‘Let’s dance, Your Honour.’ ‘Oh, you’re an Australian,’ he muttered. ‘What you meant to say is fuck art, let’s darnce.’”
This interchange is also recorded in Robertson’s 1998 book The Justice Game. In his North London kitchen one rainy afternoon, he tells me that the origins of his current speech patterns extend back to early childhood. The Robertson family were avid ABC Radio listeners and the young Geoff mysteriously chose not to utter a word until he was five years old. “When it did come out, my vowel sounds were those of the faded BBC announcers of the ABC,” he says.
“I remember in the ’70s when I was appearing a lot in the courts, the Sunday Times sent a philologist to examine the upper-class nature of the British bar. He reported that there was even one [barrister] who had exactly the vowel sounds of Eton in the time of Queen Victoria … that was my speech defect.”
When I talk to old friends, colleagues and legal mentors, many do indeed mention his English accent, often with bemusement, one calling it “plummy in full flight”. It is a telling, if depressing, feature of some Australians’ attitudes that a longtime expatriate’s loss of accent is somehow judged to be redolent of elitism or, worse still, being a sell-out.
Former Justice Michael Kirby, a great friend and mentor of Robertson, said he thought it derived from the “propinquity of having to work in the legal environment and being understood”. He adds: “Perhaps there is a touch of jealousy that a ‘home boy’ has made good, is a top QC in London.”
By any measure, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Master of the Middle Temple, recorder (a part-time judge), visiting professor at Queen Mary College, University of London, is at the pinnacle of an international legal career. The former student of Epping Boys’ High School in Sydney’s north-west is founder and head of the Doughty Street Chambers, now Europe’s largest human rights practice, and a prolific and gutsy commentator in the British press, calling for Rupert Murdoch to be hauled into the witness stand within days of the sensational eruption of the News International scandal.
Life under a Tory government is perhaps not quite the same as it was in the Blair (and Brown) years when Robertson and his novelist wife, Kathy Lette, were close friends of both Labour PMs and frequent visitors to Downing Street. But the couple have been guests at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, and enjoy the company of newspaper editors and politicians, writers and artists – along with a pop star or Russian oligarch for good measure. (The Independentand Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev is a pal.) Their dinner parties are famed, not for the food – neither Robertson nor Lette can cook – but for his good wines and her “human minestrone” guest lists, drawn up to cross the class and cultural divide so carefully guarded by the British establishment. “I like this kind of social cross-fertilisation but it’s most uncommon in Britain,” says Lette.
Robertson has 13 books under his belt, among them The Tyrannicide Brief (2005), the story of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted King Charles I in the treason trial that led to his execution. David Williamson and Robertson are now collaborating on turning the book into a play.
Most recently, last year – on the eve of the first papal visit to the UK in nearly 30 years – Robertson published the fiery The Case of the Pope, arguing that the Vatican should be treated as a kind of “rogue state” until it stops using statehood and the ancient rules of canon law to protect paedophile priests.
Robertson’s case choices may have been high profile – he revels in the limelight – but they also follow a cogent, thematic trajectory: freedom of speech, civil liberties, human rights.
He has not only looked back to history, identifying and challenging arcane law, but actively pushed forward, arguing for a ‘globalisation’ of the law, for example, at a time when this was neither fashionable nor seen as critical. His work to stop expelled political tyrants – such as Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet and Malawi’s Hastings Banda – from finding pleasant (and often luxurious) retirement havens was pioneering.
“Nobody thought a head of state could be arrested in another country and brought to book, to justice, as happened with Pinochet,” Robertson tells me. “I remember when John Howard was asked about Pinochet in 1998, he said: ‘They didn’t teach me that in law school.’ It was a revolutionary thought … only 12 years have passed but now we have [former Yugoslav president] Miloševi?, [former Liberian president] Charles Taylor, the work of the tribunal in Sierra Leone … we have [former Bosnian–Serb military leader] Ratko Mladi? and nobody seems to be attacking the notion any longer.”
Mark Stephens, one of London’s top media lawyers, says Robertson’s understanding of the history of law, its roots and derivations is formidable. “It is that that gives him a unique understanding about how law has developed in the Commonwealth and more broadly. He keeps up to date unbelievably [with international law in] places as far away as Anguilla, Mauritius, the former Yugoslavia, Africa, Sierra Leone … the UK, of course.
“There are others who might have become richer by taking duller cases but he has a permanent intellectual curiosity, a fear of the dull. Most QCs don’t take time out to write books as he has, to write texts, important works about his cases.”
Denis MacShane, Tony Blair’s former minister for Europe and the current member for Rotherham, South Yorkshire, believes Robertson has sacrificed more than money. “Geoffrey doesn’t have a Sydney Kings Cross accent, that’s true. But he is still seen as a pushy Aussie here. The Aussies that succeed well here utterly conform, they fit into the system, rarely challenge it … or, like Patricia Hewitt [the Australian-born former Blair minister], they start off as radical then make peace with the establishment.
“When I was a minister, I suggested his name for a couple of senior international judicial positions. The response I got was that he was a bit excitable, too passionate … the key to success here is pas trop de zele [‘not too much zeal’] … To ‘campaign’ is a dirty word in the British legal system. [Former Labour leader] Michael Foot once said that if it had been up to the judges, there’d be few freedoms in Britain.
“Lawyers ascend here if they work for big business, for commercial interests, corporate … they end up getting knighthoods and into the House of Lords. I would say he deserves all that but it is entirely to his honour that they have not given any of that to him.”
Walking through London’s historic legal district with Robertson, I ask if he still feels an outsider, if the UK has acknowledged his achievements. He tells me curtly that I’m “barking up the wrong tree” and drops the subject. A week or so later, he sends an email: “I appreciate people saying this but they don’t know if I have been approached for judgeship, knighthoods – or how my republican sensitivities might have reacted.”
It dawns on me that there is no Order of Australia for Robertson either.
Robertson began to write – and question – the law as a teenager, cutting his teeth on the Sydney University Law Society magazine, Blackacre. At 20, he had already been elected president of the student representative council and memorably sued the university for expelling a student – and won. The victory also saw him become the first student to sit on the university disciplinary board.
An editorial written in 1970 as an undergraduate is a telling portent of just how clearly – and earnestly – the then ‘Geoff’ Robertson already imagined his future:
The legislature lags a generation or so behind public opinion and the courts a generation or so behind the legislature. Attitudes of a bygone age may still exist side by side with attitudes and institutions arising from present conditions … The net result is often an ‘e’ in the sum total of human misery, as modern claims to personal happiness are straitjacketed by the patterns of the past … the lawyer, as chief manipulator of the legal process, has the continuing responsibility for narrowing recognised gaps between the laws and social needs.
Two years at the legal firm Allen Allen & Hemsley (now Allens Arthur Robinson) doing articles is a time he describes as “a dreadful imposition but amazing training where I learned the real nuts and bolts of the law”.
But it was at Oxford during his Rhodes Scholarship that a new philosophical and political world opened up. The famed American constitutional scholar Ronald Dworkin had just taken over the chair of jurisprudence. As Dworkin began to move the philosophy of law away from Austinian literalism and the study of language embodied in statutes, Robertson’s mind was turned to something completely different: a rights-based jurisprudence.
“It was a fascinating time to be at Oxford and at the college where those leading lights were and studying and imbibing the theories that would change the common law in years to come – from a body of statutes that had been passed in the interest of the property class and the right of individual citizens over into class rights, even the rights of the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill.”
Professor Julian Disney from the University of New South Wales is one of Robertson’s oldest friends. He shared a house with him (and John Basten, now a judge of the NSW Court of Appeal) in the picturesque village of Toot Baldon during their scholarship years. Disney laughs that the old manor house they shared was idyllic, the village, with ancient churchyard, nestled at the end of an old Roman road. Geoffrey Robertson, however, was “hardly ever there”.
“Geoff found it restrictive, he spent a lot of his time in London and in the second year, there was Oz … he was not a highly domesticated character, used those boil-in-a-bag things if he cooked at all. I remember he left one in the fridge for two months while he was away overseas; it blew up to the size of a football. We called it the case of the exploding chicken.”
Robertson says as a young man he had long been fascinated by the Old Bailey, his early interest in freedom of speech piqued by the infamous test of obscenity laws against DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Instead, it was a cartoon sketch of Rupert Bear with a disproportionately large erection that ended up changing the course of his life. Richard Neville’s decision to ask a bunch of school kids to edit an issue of his satirical mag Oz led to obscenity charges – and the infamous trial that would rivet the UK and Australia for months. Robertson offered up his services at a time in his life when he says he “knew all about the law and nothing about justice” and spent the trial “in the well of the court … as stagehand for the defence”.
Disney says this is a “huge understatement” of his role and that Robertson was the strategic brain and driving force behind the whole enterprise: “His performance, especially given his lack of experience, was a real tour de force.”
Robertson recalls, “We were staying in a flat without a shower during the trial and we used to get dressed in our suits, take a taxi to Neville’s flat, clamber over recumbent bodies in altered states of awareness, have our showers, get dressed in our suits again and then head off to the Old Bailey with our metaphorically flower-bedecked clients.”
As a very young barrister, press freedom became Robertson’s specialty. He defended two journalists who had interviewed a former intelligence officer and stood accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act 1911. He got them off, the first of several significant victories he would win for press freedom, among them the defence of Gay News and the National Theatre from the legal assaults of moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse.
Later, he would act on behalf of clients such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. In the 1980s a growing interest in human rights saw him lead several missions for Amnesty International, working in South Africa, Vietnam and Czechoslovakia, and embark on his long campaign against capital punishment. He defended scores of death penalty cases in the Privy Council, the final court of appeal for Commonwealth nations, including those of the Caribbean, and many landmark rulings followed.
The case of Michael X, a black revolutionary leader who achieved notoriety in the UK, makes heart-rending reading in The Justice Game. Robertson managed to keep him alive for two years but, in a horrible twist, the government of Trinidad signed his execution warrant at 5 am, cruelly halting any chance of mounting another appeal. Robertson wrote vividly of his experiences and the “collective terror, crazed apprehension” that swept these forsaken prisons every execution-time. The anguish forced on those waiting “without a kill-by date” cemented his belief that this was a form of torture and a breach of human rights. The Michael X case, he told me quietly, was a period he could only describe as “excruciating”. I asked him later if these cases haunt him and he says “yes” but “up to a point”: “The fact that I lost was painful but the argument we devised in his hellhole of a prison cell was later successful so I hope his spirit is at rest.”
Robertson was made Queen’s Counsel in 1988. A couple of years later he defended the arms manufacturer Matrix Churchill and exposed the government’s secret involvement in pushing the sale of armaments to Iraq. That scandal would later become known as Iraqgate.
I’m intrigued by Robertson’s career path, it seems so ordered, his trajectory so clear. Did he plan his professional life?
“I still have a puritan’s belief in providence,” he says. “Barristers and judges are captives of their cases and I’ve been fortunate in attracting cases that have led to landmark rulings on the death penalty and free speech and journalistic sources and the illegality of recruiting child soldiers and so on.
“As a schoolboy I made a conscious decision that I wanted to appear as a barrister at the Old Bailey, and I did – mentored by John Mortimer, which again was lucky, he became my forensic father. When I became interested in an area of law, like media or international law, I wrote textbooks, and the cases followed, so in that sense there has been a certain amount of planning, I guess. But what I’ve wanted most is independence.”
This ‘lone wolf?’ part of him, it strikes me, is central to his character and it is difficult to imagine Robertson forced into a team or in some of the more conventional (or prestigious) legal roles that colleagues might pursue.
His work in the Re F case, for example, helped define ‘terrorism’ for the first time. In Jameel v. Wall Street Journal, the House of Lords ended up endorsing a public interest defence for investigative journalism. Goodwin v. UK in the European Court saw the establishment of journalists’ right to protect sources. Michael Kirby, who first met Robertson in the ’60s, says he was always courageous, always ahead of his time. “He saw issues of White Australia, of Aboriginal neglect, the need for engagement with Asia and the rights of women before many people and was a very good communicator from the beginning,” he told me. “He did not see gay rights … but then again nobody saw them and those who did kept them under the blanket.”
Advocacy and writing have always gone hand in hand for Robertson. He scratched away into the wee hours while practising law by day. For years he was a night owl surviving on very little sleep but age, he says, has shifted his most creative hours to the morning.
Made a Master of the Middle Temple in 1998, he is entitled to an apartment within the ancient compound that forms part of the four Inns of Court in Central London. Much of his writing is done there, deep inside the very heart of the British legal establishment, with the medieval Temple Church built by the Knights Templar just outside his window and the romantic fountain courtyard where Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first staged directly below.
He is without doubt a writer out of the ordinary, enlivening the law and infusing it with a palpable passion for the cause. Cases are described with the page-turning tension of crime fiction and his output, say his peers, is prodigious, particularly as he remains an avowed technological Luddite.
One close friend says Robertson gets his greatest kick out of writing – that it “gives him the deepest satisfaction, even more than dramatic court appearances”. Tina Brown, the legendary British-born author, editor and publisher of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, to which Robertson contributes, says he is a rare combination of literary and legal talent: “He writes brilliantly … and most lawyers don’t.”
Everything is written in long hand (“No, I don’t use a quill,” he insists, laughing, “I use this,” drawing an elegant black ballpoint from his coat pocket.) In fact, he does not use a computer at all, refuting the internet as a tool of enslavement and distraction; he only begrudgingly sends and receives emails via his personal assistant.
Friends and colleagues all describe him without hesitation as a workaholic – his wife says she used to complain of “subpoena envy”.
During the past 18 months, he has drafted a new statute for the government of Mauritius, rewriting the island nation’s media law; written the report on his inquiry into the massacre of political prisoners in Iran in 1988; researched and drafted a report and opinion on a sovereignty dispute over the Chagos Islands; and produced an opinion for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a group of Iranian political exiles in Iraq, who Robertson argues should be offered United Nations protection. He has also just finished setting the new exam papers for selection of the next batch of UN judges and advised the Greek government on the return of the Elgin Marbles (“they were very keen but, ah, they have a lot of, ah, other things on their plate now”).
His campaign for a British Bill of Rights, to enshrine the very best of Brit identity and values – its history of liberty and civil rights – is argued to counter the tabloid media’s rabid campaign against the feared loss of sovereignty under the European Convention on Human Rights.
His argument for an Australian charter in Statute of Liberty (2009) reveals a personal passion. “I just think it’s a shame for Australia – for Australian lawyers, of course, but also for intellectuals and for our cultural life. The rest of the advanced world is solving problems by resort to basic human rights principles that Australian courts have little experience of adjudicating. It isolates us from some progressive jurisprudence.”
He has also made his presence felt in the courtroom this year – from Assange’s first hearings in the Old Bailey and Belmarsh, to several appearances in a tribunal in Georgia. A few days after our first meeting, he flew to Luxembourg and the European Court of Justice, where he led the argument in a groundbreaking test case of a new ‘right to dignity’ that has been introduced as Article 1 in the new European Charter. The case, brought on behalf of asylum seekers forced to sleep in Greek gutters and starve while authorities failed to process their asylum claims, tested the meaning of the human right to dignity for the first time. It unfolded before a packed court and 17 judges.
Robertson wove a lyrical argument combining European ideas of Judeo–Christian ethics drawn from the Bible with Shakespeare’s examination of the quality of mercy, Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative of ‘do unto others’ and John Stuart Mill’s defence of the outsider, the eccentric and unusual. Robertson highlighted the lack of American and Asian quotations on human dignity in his argument but reminded the judges that they shouldn’t feel too smug about it being a European right in light of the “subhuman brutality practised by certain leading European states within living memory”.
“I always mention the war in my European court appearances,” he tells me with a theatrically straight face.
The punishing schedule has its downsides. Friends say there can be two sides to Robertson – the charming, engaging and brilliant advocate and raconteur and another, who can be brutal in social situations, paying attention only to those who, in the words of one observer, “can advance his interests or are celebrities”: “This rather ruthlessly self-centred approach is, of course, a characteristic of many brilliant and extremely ambitious people like him.”
Michael Kirby is up-front about his friend. “With brilliance, being a man of ideas, of course there are weaknesses … some vanity perhaps. He is clever and he knows it and that can make enemies.”
Other mates describe visiting or staying at the family home in London with Geoffrey happy to sweep in and out, cheerfully saying hello but disappearing off to his study to read the papers and do his own thing after dinner, alone: “He can honestly be oblivious,” says one.
I put these observations to Robertson and he is candid in his response: “What can I say? I’m a lawyer battling the profession’s epidemic of arrogance. When I come home after a day of judging, being bowed and scraped to the whole time, my family delight in taking me down a peg or two. If I could suffer fools gladly I would have gone into politics. I do answer most of my emails – except those that come with death threats – but some people I just can’t help. And at least I don’t hold grudges.”
The first time we sat down at his West Hampstead home to talk, I was given “a bit of reading”: in all, seven books and nine articles and judgements. (His PA emailed a couple of weeks later with a list of further things “Geoffrey wants you to have”.) Ensconced in his lounge room – where a portrait of a grinning Lette dominates the fireplace – he seemed edgy. He made it clear he wanted to put off talking on the record until I had done my reading. He also told me that, while I was free to write what I wanted, he would like to know about anything I wrote about his parents or children. (Friends say he is a supportive, loving son who returns often to see his octogenarian parents in Sydney.)
At one point Kathy Lette, just returned from the gym, popped her head in to say “hello” and, while chatting about upcoming weekend engagements, dropped Lebedev and a private plane into the conversation. Robertson’s brusque move to cut that conversation short was a fleeting, if telling, moment.
Later, by email, I ask him about this: “I don’t like private jets, or luxury boats, or big toys. That invitation is to give a keynote address at a conference in Lyon – a pretty unglitzy place. Yes, you can find me at Wimbledon and Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and West End theatres, but not on yachts or private planes. I prefer walking on deserted beaches with sand warm between my toes.”
The union of the self-described autodidact, clit-lit novelist with a penchant for puns with the Oxford-educated, human rights advocate clearly intrigues those who do not know them well. However, it is in his writing – even in the most serious and law laden arguments – where her influence is most obvious: it is sprinkled with Letteisms, jokes and straight-out puns. He on the other hand apparently cuts a swathe through her more purple prose with a red pen: “He raises my tone, I lower his,” she laughs. The two have been married since 1990, and have two children, Julius, 20 and Georgie, 18. “I think if Geoff hadn’t had children, he could easily have taken up residence in an ivory tower of academia,” Lette says. “He is highly intellectual. Fatherhood has kept his feet on the ground.
“Geoffrey is not motivated by money. Or power,” she adds. “He is devoted to saving the world’s underdogs from their kennels. A knight in shining Armani.”
The pair met famously during a Hypothetical when Robertson told his producers he wanted someone the antithesis of Joh Bjelke-Petersen to be placed beside him. Kylie Minogue was invited but the message came back that she was unavailable and he would have to make do with the Puberty Blues author. He made do alright: they didn’t stop chatting until 4 am the following morning and two weeks later she was in Singapore by his side, “knocked out by his intellect”.
At the time Lette was married to Kim Williams, now the chief executive of Foxtel, while Robertson was going out with Nigella Lawson: “Uprooting myself to England was traumatic … yes, he broke up with the Domestic Goddess for me. And I can’t cook. I use my smoke alarm as a timer. When he looks at me across a bowl of cold baked beans I’m sure he now thinks he made a terrible mistake,” she says.
The day I meet Robertson for our second interview, James Murdoch had just announced the shock closure of the News of the World, David Cameron had buckled, pledging a full inquiry, and News International had entered crisis management mode. He is clearly enthused by the idea of an inquiry, evading my question about his possible involvement – but is much more relaxed when chatting about his life. A few days later, we meet for a tour of the Doughty Street practice he established in 1990. He spotted the old Georgian terrace from a party held in the Spectator’s offices next door. Intrigued by its position, described first in the Domesday Book of 1086 as having vineyards and “wood for 100 pigs”, it was adjacent to the Charles Dickens Museum and smack bang where the Bloomsbury set met. The practice now boasts 25 QCs, 70 or so lawyers and many eminent specialists and associates.
He tells me the practice turns over £30 million per year and has expanded to five Georgian terraces in the same street. I don’t manage to get an answer to exactly how much he earns after a few people insist on telling me Lette earns more than he does. His clerk would tell you Robertson commands £10,000 a day for the big, international cases, but he – not to mention the practice – is also known for a commitment to pro bono work.
Later, we walk into Inner Temple, through the various Inns of Court and into Middle Temple. He takes me to look at the magnificent dining room – a movie set of dark wood panelling, oil portraits of generations of King’s Bench chief justices and QCs, and carefully displayed civil war armour. They were out of bounds to benchers on this day, rented out for a wedding. “It’s how we raise money … Harry Potter nights too,” he says matter-of-factly.
Waving at the greenery outside, he mentions that this was the rose garden where the blooms that began the War of the Roses were picked. Then the telephone rings and Geoffrey Robertson QC is off.