Cherie Booth QC: Matrix reloaded

She’s moved out of No 10, but not out of the limelight. Cherie Booth QC reveals what’s next on her agenda

Four months on from moving out of No 10, Cherie Booth QC of Matrix Chambers is increasingly being asked the same question: does she still fancy the bench as a career?The answer is 100 per cent no – well, almost. “I don’t think that’s in my gift,” says Booth. Sitting in her room at Matrix, Booth seems to be battling a certain tug at her heart strings.

“I’ve neither ruled it out, or ruled it in,” she explains. “In the end it isn’t a question for me, it’s a question for the judicial appointments committee.” Despite the fact that her time as the prime minister’s spouse gave her a high profile, that time may have ruined any chances she had of taking up a judicial role in the High Court.

“Cherie Blair’s chances of ever reaching the High Court were massively dented by the Downing Street years,” claims one senior Fleet Street figure who has followed her career closely. “Although not relevant to her legal expertise, her conduct while her husband was prime minister raises questions about her judgement – or rather lack of it.

“The other major issue is that she’s become too politicised while her husband was in office. Often when making speeches she would talk about ‘we’, as in the Government. She’s simply too close to politics ever to be an impartial judge.”

Lawyers who have instructed Booth, however, are quick to jump to her defence.

Take John Maxwell of Young Street Chambers, who instructed Booth in Bowker v R (2007), a youth criminal case that he was appealing on grounds of the Human Rights Act (HRA).

“Those who criticise her for becoming politicised are absolutely wrong,” says Maxwell. “What we were attacking in that case was the basic tenet of the criminal law. Had we been right it would have impacted on the efforts of countless home secretaries. In my mind she couldn’t be more apolitical.”

For the moment Booth seems content to explore other options. “You have to remember that I’m a judge,” she says. “I sit as a recorder, which I enjoy very much. The work that I’m doing as an arbitrator and mediator is a form of judging. I find it very challenging and rewarding and I certainly intend to continue with that.”

Raising her profile

Booth would be the first to admit that life as the prime minister’s wife has had an effect on her career as a lawyer – both positive and negative.

She concedes her profile has led to solicitors across the country instructing her on the request of the public, but she believes that, even without New Labour in government, her standing in the legal profession would have been strong.

“Within the bar, having taken silk in 1995, one has a profile in the legal profession anyway and that profile wouldn’t have changed. But it would be foolish of me [to deny that] among the members of the public I’ve become a very well-known barrister.”

That profile is reflected in her Matrix postbag. “There’s not a day when some member of the public hasn’t written to me either with requests for general advice or specific legal advice,” she admits. “But as I’m not registered for direct public access work they’re always informed that they must go through a solicitor if they wish to instruct me.”

Booth’s academic record was flawless (a first-class degree in law from the London School of Economics and top of her class at bar school), but her reputation within the legal profession is certainly not as an advocate.

Her mentor Michael Beloff QC describes her as a “reasonable” advocate, and Marc Jones, an employment partner at West London firm Turbervilles, who has instructed her on a sex discrimination appeal against the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 2004, says: “I think she’s much better when her arguments come from her experiences as opposed to a scripted format.”

Rather, Booth’s fans prefer to cite her analysis and commitment to a case.

“She was very hard-working, very dedicated to the case and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in that she was there photocopying cases like the rest of us, with no airs or graces,” says Jones. “As a lawyer and as a QC she was impressive.”

“She’s incredibly clever and hardworking,” says Beloff, who led her early on in her career. “Her strength as a junior was in research and being able to provide clear notes.”

Career focus

The other advantage of having been in No 10 ? All questions on her husband are off limits, but Booth certainly refers to it as an “opportunity to do wider things”.

Indeed, Booth has spent much time continued ##continuedon the lecture circuit, mainly for charity awareness and campaigns, although last year she reportedly netted £100,000 from delivering a series of talks, including in Toronto, Vancouver, San Jose and Denver, where tickets cost $599 (£290) each.

So much for the positives. How about the negatives?”The negative thing is simply the perception people have that I wouldn’t carry on with practice,” she says. “We had the general election on 1 May [1997], we moved into Downing Street on 2 May, on 5 May it was a bank holiday and on 6 May I started a case in the Court of Appeal.

“I was very keen to do that as I wanted to put the message across that I was a barrister and intended to continue. [But] it would be foolish of me to say that I had as much time in my practice as I would have done if we weren’t in No 10.

“In those 10 years it was a question of striking a balance between ensuring that my practice grows and doing the things that were rightly required of me as the wife of the Prime Minister.”

It was Beloff who helped give her the reassurances she needed when juggling these obligations.

“When they got to Downing Street I remember writing to Cherie, as I myself was in a full-time job as the president of Trinity College in Oxford while keeping a practice going,” says Beloff. “I just wanted to reassure her that it was possible to have another career as well as being a barrister.

“Of course, while in No 10 she had to spread herself more thinly, but she was able to walk the line skilfully and deftly.”

Moving forward

Booth has been canny about shaping her career to changing trends. Over the past decade she has moved her practice from a purely domestic to a more international practice and has trained as an accredited arbitrator and mediator in between all those government visits.

“The move away from litigation to arbitration and mediation is clearly happening and there’s a distinctive position for it in the growing international marketplace,” explains Booth. “We have a high reputation for legal services here in the City of London and in the UK generally, which puts us in a strong position to take advantage of the changing face of the law.”

The globalisation of law has had an effect on the work of Matrix, which Booth helped to found in 2000.

“It started from us wanting to make our academics more than just door tenants, to be seen as part of practice teams where they can give their academic advice,” says Booth. “International law lends itself to academics practising in that area, which led to a focus in chambers on the international platform.

“This led to me doing more international law and going to places such as Malaysia, Bermuda and Bangladesh to give advice to local lawyers on the international human rights aspect of some of their cases.”

Booth says she made the move as she felt the HRA provided a real opportunity for barristers engaging in “more creative partnerships with solicitors”.

“We’ve managed to get involved in innovative partnerships by being brought into an existing team just to give specialised advice and then not to be in the entirety of the case,” explains Booth. “It was one of the things at Matrix that we thought we could offer – and not just with solicitors, but also with other barristers.”

Now back in full-time practice, the set’s most famous tenant has more time on her hands to devote to her job.

Lindsay Scott, chief executive at Matrix, sums up Booth’s accomplishments. “She’s managed to maintain a diverse, flexible and high-profile practice while being a wife and mother and also holding another public profile.”

CHERIE’S CAREER IN THE MAKING

Booth would not be where she is now if it was not for two men in particular – Lord Irvine, the first Lord Chancellor under his former pupil Tony Blair, and Michael Beloff QC, the former head of 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square.

Booth came across Irvine back in the 1970s when studying for her LLB at the London School of Economics (LSE). She was taught by a part-time lecturer who happened to be Irvine.

Irvine saw the potential in Booth, which some say he nurtured towards employment law, although Booth would say it was instinctively her first love.

In 1976 Booth was called to the bar, obtaining a pupillage at common law set 2 Crown Office Row, where she continued as a general common law junior with a broad practice, including personal injury, crime and family.

It was through her family work, such as childcare orders, that she became renowned among local governments, which started to instruct her for wider public law issues.

She was also very much involved in a broad range of government work, but Booth admits: “In the past 10 years that hasn’t been an option and indeed it really isn’t an option in the future for obvious reasons.”

As public law began to feature heavily in her practice, her position was slowly becoming untenable at 2 Crown Office, as she was moving too far adrift from the set’s core work.

It was then in the 1990s that her former lecturer Irvine came to her rescue, as Beloff explains.

“When Derry was shadow Lord Chancellor he asked me to have a look at the very gifted young woman who was in a set that possibly wasn’t best suited to her,” says Beloff. “I found her absolutely charming, talented and intelligent.

“Cherie managed to show off her qualities without being vain about it, so we brought her into our fold.

“Perhaps if she hadn’t made the move to 4-5 she wouldn’t have done as well as she has and would have languished at a set that didn’t specialise in employment and public law, which was what she really always wanted to do.”

It was then in 2000 when she decided to jump ship, along with six other barristers at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, to found human rights set Matrix.

CHERIE ON:

THE GLOBALISATION OF UK FIRMS
“UK law firms becoming more global entities is a very powerful thing. Over the past 10 years I’ve travelled around the world, and British legal services are seen as a premium everywhere
we go.
“The fact that British firms can compete and beat the best in the rest of the world isn’t only healthy and great for our balance of payments, but is a tribute to the robustness of our system of justice generally.”

THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT
“It won’t come as a surprise, but I’m not in favour of scrapping the Human Rights Act, and I think it was one of the major triumphs of my husband’s government. I certainly welcome the call for a debate on a Bill of Rights for this country and what it means.
“Essentially it was brought in to change our culture in this country, particularly in relation to public affairs, which is what human rights are all about. It’s about protecting the individual from the excesses of the state.
“The Human Rights Act brought in the European Convention, but the convention is relatively limited as a human rights instrument; and if people feel that they want to go further then that’s a debate that we, as a country, should have.
“On the other hand, the beauty of our Human Rights Act is that it walks the fine line between ensuring that rights are preserved and preserving the rights of Parliament to have the last word, which in a parliamentary democracy is essential.”

WOMEN IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION
“We need more women lawyers and more women judges. It’s a shame that the last woman to be appointed to the bench was two years ago. There have been more than 20 men ­appointed since the last woman.
“I’m extremely confident that there are qualified women around, but that’s not an application by me for any job.”