As big as his boots
24 September 2001
Michael Coleman has hurtled through his career rodeo-style, and with clients such as James Hewitt and the Hamiltons, he isn’t about to fall off
For those of you watching the television news closely over the summer, Michael Coleman’s face should look familiar. He was caught up in the top story of silly season, the Hamiltons’ ’sex scandal’.
Coleman acted for Neil and Christine Hamilton as they faced questioning over allegations of a sleazy sexual assault in an Ilford flat and doubled up as their press spokesman throughout. He was the one who persuaded the couple to come out of the front door of the police station and face the massive press pack salivating at the prospect of their front pages the next day.
“The only problem I had was getting Neil and Christine not to open their mouths,” says Coleman, sighing at the recollection of Christine’s much-publicised declaration: “I am not a banana.”
It was not until the three of them, plus Louis Theroux filming the latest in his wacky profiles, arrived at the police station that they knew the details of the accusations, and Coleman says that he had hoped to be able to keep the case out of the press. “[I thought] the chances were that it would go into [the diary pages of] William Hickey or Nigel Dempster and we could just ignore it,” he says.
That hunch proved to be way out and the Hamiltons came out to face the biggest barrage of cameras that Coleman says he has ever seen; he says it was twice the size of the one that faced him when he succeeded in getting Lady Diana’s love letters back for client James Hewitt.
Now Harkavy & Co’s senior partner is gearing up for a libel action against the Hamiltons’ accuser Nadine Milroy-Sloan, now that the police have dropped the case.
One case and already three hats - criminal lawyer, libel lawyer and press officer. Coleman specialises in being a legal jack of all trades. In the past, he has acted for George Walker against the Serious Fraud Office, taken on a High Court case in Tokyo for Barclays Bank, used the computer might of Nasa in a personal injury (PI) case against Harrods, acted for Lady Diana’s bit on the side James Hewitt, been instructed at a party by the boxer Lennox Lewis and also acted for perjurer Jonathan Aitken.
Coleman reels off all these achievements without being prompted, and if left long enough I am sure that he would claim a hand in most of the major legal developments of his day. That may be unfair, but Coleman is not backward in self-promotion. But his bravado is presumably what keeps the punters coming through the doors of the Harley Street office of Harkavys. When I ask him how he came to represent the Hamiltons, he tells me that it was on the back of a personal recommendation from: “Thatcher, Aitken and Ken Barlow [the Coronation Street character]… I mean, the guy who plays Ken Barlow; can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t matter because he’s Ken Barlow 24 hours a day - that’s him.”
The Hamiltons moved from Crockers Oswald Hickson, which had advised them during the Al Fayed libel trial, because they still owe the firm around £400,000 and could not impose on its generosity any longer. Coleman said he took on the case not knowing how he would be paid, but that various media deals that Christine has secured means the bill will be met. He says he is neither working on a conditional fee arrangement, nor is he doing the job for publicity, as he already has to turn away punters.
If Coleman does not have specialist knowledge (as he says, if James Hewitt had any sense he would have instructed a “proper” libel lawyer), he does have a strong self-belief that he can handle anything with specialist advice from other lawyers. “I don’t pretend to be able to build a house but I could get a house built,” he says. “I know labourers, plumbers, electricians. The skill is making sure that you bring in the right people but also that they understand the way you think.
“I tend to do things in a different way to most people. The problem you get when you look through a pair of binoculars is that you see things very clearly but you can’t see everything else around.”
Thus, because he is not a libel lawyer, Coleman did not realise when he applied for a freezing order of Milroy-Sloan’s assets that one had never been granted in a libel case before. And when he went to court to stop creditors selling Jonathan Aitken’s personal correspondence, the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights had not been incorporated into UK law did not stop Coleman from arguing that such a move was a breach of a right to a private life. And both tactics worked.
“The problem is that a lot of lawyers are too far up their own noses to see that the law is actually quite simple,” he argues, pausing before the word ’noses’ and admitting that he was actually going to express himself slightly more colourfully.
Part of his approach is advising his clients on playing the media game US-style. But he claims not to enjoy the limelight himself, limiting himself to two-minute soundbites. Any longer, he admits, and he might get himself into trouble, which I can readily believe, as he hardly pauses for breath once he has got his teeth into a subject.
Coleman’s philosophy on law was formed when he was 15.
Having just packed in a job as a window cleaner after convincing himself he had frostbite, the young Coleman was offered two jobs. One was making tea at a stockbrokers, the other making tea for George Carman. Fortunately for Aitken, Hamilton, Hewitt et al, he opted for the latter while not really knowing what either employer did.
Carman told him that the practice of law was merely the application of laws and principles to execute what the average member of society of the day believes is right or wrong. “If you think, ’That can’t be right’, then most often it isn’t,” says Coleman.
In delivering the briefs to Carman’s set, Coleman would have a peek and come up with his own opinion; he claims that he was usually right. This curiosity sent him down the path to his future career with a move to a firm called Douglas Goldberg, where he bluffed his way into a job as a litigation assistant.
“I kept that job by the skin of my teeth,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’d go to the pub on the corner and hide there for an hour before heading back to the office to do the research I needed to keep the job.” After 18 months he was running the department unqualified, but decided then to go to nightschool where he got his one and only O-level.
Further study resulted in his exemption from articles and his partnership at Douglas Goldberg on the day he qualified. As if that was not impressive enough, Coleman throws in along the way that at the time he got the ninth-highest mark ever for his law finals. This man does not know the meaning of the word modest.
His life is now a world away from the council estate where he grew up. Client James Hewitt (“not exactly ’bit dim, but really nice’, but very naive”) is now one of his closest friends. He tells me that celebrity magazines OK! and Hello! last year battled unsuccessfully over the rights to cover his wedding to Emma, one of the Butlins family, because of the ’celebtastic’ guest list. I would wager that Emma is the pretty blonde whose photograph joins a strange selection of ornaments, small furry gonks and 40th birthday cards in an alcove in his basement office. The cards are a bit of a mystery, as Coleman says he was 15 in 1972, meaning that he hit 40 in 1997. Still, it is always a shame to throw away nice cards, isn’t it?
Coleman’s unusual way of working involved roping in both a ceramics expert and Nasa for a case involving a man who fell off a balcony at the Ritz. The hotel’s defence was that the victim was “absolutely pissed”, to which Coleman’s answer was that he was drunk but the hotel had sold him the drink.
There then followed an approach to Nasa, which was twiddling its thumbs after the Challenger disaster, to simulate how a 14-stone man could have fallen off a balcony. Further investigations involved a court order to dig up the floor of the balcony after Coleman had a hunch that it was not original. This found tiles that a ceramics expert traced to Villeroy & Boch in Germany, which in turn revealed that the tiles dated from the 1970s. Thus, the balcony was recent and it did not comply with the minimum recommended height (if you are interested, that is 1.1m for Europe). So Coleman, who is not a PI lawyer, handled a case that he says had nothing to do with PI law.
“Anybody could have done it,” he says. “The Law Society would disagree, but you get all those [legal] experts and they can’t see the wood for the trees. I can’t get away with what I used to get away with because [the experts] used to massively underestimate me, so I could pull ambushes on them.”
So far, a perfect career; but Coleman seems in a bit of a quandary as to his future. “The one thing I never wanted to do is be part of this big machine. I’ve been offered substantial opportunities but I wanted to remain a free-thinker. That’s my personal satisfaction. But I can’t think of anything that I wanted to do that I haven’t achieved,” he says.
Which, for a man of 40 (or 44), is not a bad position to be in.
Harkavy & Co