Escape to victory

SUSANNA FitzGerald QC is the woman responsible for bringing table dancers to Stringfellows. This tenant of magic circle commercial set One Essex Court, also happens to be one of the bar's leading, if somewhat unconventional, licensing practitioners.

FitzGerald has a unique brand of "bad girlness" which, in addition to representing the likes of Peter Stringfellow, means that she has been called on to lend her talents to promoting internet gambling and advising bookmakers when they set up shop in offshore tax havens to avoid Britain's high tax rate.

Licensing barristers are something of a rare breed, so she is well positioned to get her often radical views heard. There is only one other silk, 3 Raymond Buildings' Richard Beckett QC, and, says FitzGerald, just two or three junior barristers for whom licensing is the dominant element of their practices. Other barristers blend a particular branch of licensing, such as gaming, with other work.

Being almost one of a kind also means that even when commercial work as a whole suffers a downturn, such as during the last quarter of 1999 and early 2000 during which time her set also suffered from a number of departures, her practice has not noticeably suffered.

However, when the 1991 recession hit the leisure industry, a major source of her work, she did supplement her income by travelling widely in Europe giving seminars.

Described by one peer as a "pioneer", FitzGerald can regularly be found lobbying the Government to reform its outdated liquor, gaming, betting, public entertainment and e-commerce laws. At the moment, she is preoccupied with the proposals to reform the liquor licensing laws. It is proposed that pub opening hours should be decided at the discretion of tribunals drawn from members of local authorities, rather than local justices.

"This would be a grave error," she warns. "It's better if politics, with a big or a small p, is not involved when controlling legal issues. Politicians also have to face very great pressure from local residents to refuse licences and councils can change every three years, so the tribunal would be untrained in these matters. There are also horror stories of bad council behaviour, such as hearing applications at 2am."

The legalisation of internet gambling is another of FitzGerald's campaigns. Online gambling is already available to UK residents through bookmakers which are established offshore and websites based in countries such as Malta, Antigua and Gibraltar. FitzGerald argues that bookmakers should be allowed to ply their trade in this country, where they can be properly monitored.

"This country can't regulate it so it would be much better if they legalise and control it here," she says. "I hope the Government's Gambling Review Body, due to report at the end of July on Britain's gambling laws, will recommend legalising internet gambling. But it still won't be in force for another four years – they should be doing it now."

In any case, she has reservations about the members of the review body. "The only person who knows anything about gambling is Peter Dean, the chairman of the Gaming Board. Everyone else is the great and the good, but they don't know anything about our gambling rules," she adds.

In between practice, lecturing, writing, listening to opera music (as well as to her American husband playing the banjo), looking after two boys aged 11 and 15, and maintaining a modest property business, FitzGerald is also a non-executive director of trade organisation Business in Sport and Leisure (BSL). It lobbies on behalf of the leisure industry, suggests legislation reform, and commissions a wide range of studies, such as last year's KPMG report on gambling and a study on the national minimum wage. It has 100 members that includes leisure operators, lawyers and surveyors, and, says FitzGerald, is "very influential".

FitzGerald's passion for liberalisation is not helped by the fact that the last gaming act was in 1968, and much of the case law in existence, dates back to the 19th century. However, her practice has benefited and the antiquated laws mean that she is regularly involved in test cases.

One such case was R v Burton Adams, which was concerned with criminal charges brought against the company's crane and grab machines at an arcade in North Wales, considered to be inciting gambling as users could exchange two prizes for a third more valuable one. FitzGerald caused a stir when she lined the offending articles – teddy bears – before their Lordships. One even insisted that he kept a bear for his grandchildren. FitzGerald says: "The argument revolved around a high-tech discussion of Section 54 of the Gaming Act 1968, in which in every sentence there are words which mean something different." The Lords accepted her principle of the trading up argument, which essentially means that two items can be lawfully exchanged for one larger bear.

Another technical issue that frustrates FitzGerald is the fact that, besides the National Lottery and certain far smaller ones, lotteries and lottery advertising are unlawful.

Eighteen months ago she represented the International Lottery in Liechtenstein, an internet lottery with proposed ticket sales worth £3.14bn, in its fight to advertise in the UK. Her argument was based on European Law relating to the free movement of goods and services, plus the fact that the National Lottery was in existence. "The Home Office ganged up against us and the High Court rejected our argument," FitzGerald says.

She feels that British people are somewhat neurotic about gambling. "People didn't see the lottery as gambling, but now they do and they're fine about that," she says. However, while she has fought for the liberalisation of gambling, she still perceives the "tight controls" as not altogether disadvantageous.

"We've still grown and survived since the 1960s, when the restrictions started to be brought in," says FitzGerald. "The tight regulations are unnecessary in some circumstances, but they've certainly brought great strength, which is paying off, as there is now a great possibility that the gambling laws can be relaxed.

"In a recent global gambling prevalence study the UK figured quite low. This just shows our regulations have been working. Or perhaps it's part of our national psyche."

FitzGerald is a trustee of Gamcare, a society for problem gamblers, and while she admits that there are some "real problem cases" and that it is addictive, she does not see it as a major problem in the UK.

FitzGerald herself was drawn to the licensing field, not because of a personal interest in gambling, but because she believes that it deals with the "fun" things in life, such as entertainment and escape. FitzGerald cites the example of the redevelopment of bingo. "Bingos, for some people, are the only kind of social life they have, and they've developed so much that even young men go to them, not just the blue-rinse brigade. I enjoy my part in helping them do that," she says.

Equally, she enjoyed representing Peter Stringfellow in his successful attempt to introduce table dancers into London's Soho. "He has a great gift for treating everyone in the way they want to be treated," she says. "He was a wonderful witness and is extremely good at what he does."

FitzGerald regards the table dancing profession with similar high regard, highlighting the fact that the dancers enjoy it, want to do it, and get paid handsomely in the process. "I, as a career woman, can appreciate that," she concludes.