I had been warned that Laura Cox QC could be quite stern, so I braced myself to be torn limb from limb for my idiotic questions.
After all, the indications were there: successful barrister – therefore up for a fight (or ‘debate’, as the bar prefers to label humdingers); head of chambers – ditto; and the fact that she had steered that chambers through a high-profile split – double ditto.
But those who had warned me must have been even bigger wimps than me, because the head of Cloisters Chambers is not at all stern. She does close her eyes, however, when talking to you, which is slightly disconcerting at first because certain members of my family do that when they are so mad they cannot even bear to look at you. But Cox merely does it to focus on what she is saying, and once I had realised that, I was okay.
Halfway through the interview, when I have ascertained that she is not just lulling me into a false sense of security, I put this reputation to her and she looks genuinely puzzled.
“I can be cross on occasions, although I tend to be someone who avoids confrontation, because I think there are more positive ways of engaging with people,” she reflects. “But as to being stern, well, I obviously crossed someone along the way.
“I have a temper, and if I lose my temper I can be quite fierce on occasions, but I quickly come out of it.”
Far from being stern, Cox comes across as very warm and approachable, characteristics that must have been useful in healing any wounds left after the split of her chambers in the summer of 2000. The split saw the criminal side of the chambers fall away, with most of the displaced tenants finding a new home in 14 Tooks Court. It was a sensible move, but just because a decision is logical does not mean it is not painful.
It was quite a long and protracted split, but Cox says it is now completely behind them. “I felt it was not as bad as other chambers splits have been,” she explains. “It was sad and difficult, but actually there was a real recognition on the part of everyone that there was no way we could survive as a mixed set.”
The only way the chambers could have retained both its criminal and civil arms, Cox argues, was by more than doubling in size. “That became increasingly less attractive as people thought about it,” she says.
The reason why the split took so long was that Cox wanted to reach a consensus. “If you force it through, then trauma can result. But we all reached the decision at the same time and that by itself was a fairly time-consuming exercise,” she says.
While Cox had predicted a drop in work following the split, the sudden rush of new employment law has actually led to a rise in instructions, she says. When talking about the increase in legislation, both UK and European, Cox looks slightly bewildered at the size of the flood.
But she is not drowning – she has ridden the crest of the wave, working on several cases that are threatening to push back established barriers. In particular, she has built herself a little niche working on discrimination cases relating to transsexuals. A couple of weeks ago, for example, she was in Strasbourg before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) arguing that it is time for the Government to offer legal recognition to transsexuals in the case of Goodwin v United Kingdom.
“What we’re hoping is that the court will say they’ve been patient enough with the UK,” explains Cox, who says that the ECHR has decided several cases in this area in favour of the UK Government, adding warnings that it expects action to be taken to alter the situation.
The judgment from Strasbourg should take around three to four months to return, and in the meantime the case of Bellinger, which is pushing for a marriage between a transsexual woman and a man to be recognised legally, will arrive before the House of Lords.
Cox admits that it is immensely difficult to keep up with the current changes in employment law, but adds that this has the advantage that no one else can keep up either, so her chambers is now instructed regularly by the City firms to talk them through the changes.
Of course, the introduction of the Human Rights Act has not made life any easier, although Cox says that she is very pleased with how the courts have interpreted its provisions so far. Her set was involved with training the judiciary on its implementation, so I guess she would only have herself to blame if she did not like what the courts were up to.
“What was crucial was that there was a gradual incremental application of human rights in this country,” says Cox. “It would have been easy for human rights to be devalued by bad cases, but I’m very pleased so far with the way the courts have approached it.”
According to Cox, the courts are presently going through a bedding down process and in the future judges may try to push the legislation further, but she is grateful for the careful filtering system that has ensured the maverick claims are not being argued. Despite what our right wing tabloid press might believe.
In her role as UK representative on the International Labour Organisation, Cox has been able to observe that human rights law is being advanced around the world. “It gives you such an amazing perspective on what’s going on and really benefits you when you’re looking at the way things are developing overseas,” she enthuses.
While in the past this might have been interesting but of little practical use, Cox explains that now the courts are much more ready to listen to case law from, for example, Australia or the US.
The current situation is a long way from how it was when Cox was a pupil to Stephen Solley QC in the late 1970s. Then the Sex Discrimination Act had only just been written into the statute book and Solley was doing much of the pioneering work on it. Even then, says Cox, he would ask whether there was any ECHR angles in a case. Having worked with him, she adds, it was inevitable that her career would go in the direction that it has.
At the end of the day, Cox has a lot to thank her university law tutor for, as he recommended Cloisters to her after she showed an interest in employment law. The initial interest in law was triggered by an adolescence spent arguing with her parents, which makes you wonder why the bar is not 10 times more oversubscribed than it currently is. So is she still argumentative, or does her job get it all out of her system?
“I argue madly with my sons,” she smiles, adding that none of them show signs of wanting to follow in her footsteps. Her youngest, who is eight, currently wants to become a bus driver. I just pity them the prospect of arguing with a barrister – heaven knows it is frustrating enough as a teenager arguing against someone who is not trained in advocacy.
Smiling, Cox adds: “I spend my life arguing with the three of them, but otherwise I’ve matured with age.”
Laura Cox QC
Head of chambers