Focus: Dinah Rose QC
13 July 2009 | By Katy Dowell
The Lawyer Awards’ Barrister of the Year recalls the cases that shaped her career and reveals how she made it to the top
Dinah Rose QC is up to her neck in lever-arch files. She is preparing for three cases she has in the next 10 days: one in the Court of Appeal, two in the High Court; two for the Government, one against. This is life for the next month. Then she will take a well-earned break. “We’ll probably end up in the Lake District,” she says.
Rose always wanted to be a barrister. She recalls being accused of misbehaving on the Northern Line by her head teacher when she was 12. She batted off the claim after stating that a friend who was also accused was not in school that day. It is the satisfaction of winning the argument against the teacher that she remembers vividly. “I loved arguing, and the thought that you could get paid to do it was fascinating for me,” she says.
Finding her niche
In the mid-1980s the prospect of joining the bar, for a woman, was ambitious. “It was hard for women, especially for those who wanted to combine a career with a family,” Rose says. Had it not been for a careers officer she may well have been a solicitor. Instead the bar beckoned.
Rose went to Fountain Court for a mini-pupillage, where she was asked “to be mother” and serve tea for the older barristers during a meeting. “Times were different then,” she says.
At Blackstone Chambers, which she joined in 1990, things were slightly more advanced. Barbara Dohmann, practising since 1971, had begun making a name for herself; Presily Baxendale had been a practising barrister since 1974; and Monica Carrs-Frisk had just been called to the bar. “It was a very collegiate place,” recalls Rose.
Blackstone has been a central pillar of Rose’s career and she is steadfastly loyal to the set. “Everybody was somebody else’s pupil,” she says. “It’s a very stressful job and people understand that you’re under pressure - if you want to run about swearing then that’s fine. It would be unthinkable to leave, nobody ever does.”
Rose credits Blackstone bigwig Lord Lester of Herne Hill as a mentor. “He shaped the barrister I became,” she says, adding that David Pannick QC has also been a “huge influence”.
“They showed me that I’d have to believe in myself and have the courage of my convictions,” says Rose, looking slightly humbled to find herself moving towards the status of two of the great barristers of recent times.
The chambers has nurtured Rose’s broadening public sector practice. Her first case set the tone for her career. It was in James v Eastleigh Borough Council (1990), in which she acted for James alongside Lord Lester, that Rose got her first taste of sex discrimination law. Finding for her clients, the House of Lords agreed that the council had acted discriminately when it allowed women over the age of 60 in to a swimming pool for free but not men because they had not reached retirement age.
A year later she was representing pregnant women who had been forced out of the armed forces, combining her love of public sector and employment work. This broadened further when the Human Rights Act (1998) was brought in.
“I love having the wide range of cases,” says Rose, who, say opponents, has an “amazing intellect”. “Since I took silk I’ve done a few telecoms cases - I love the technical detail and the challenge of the tribunals.”
Rose operates a “cab-rank rule” and takes the cases that come her way. “I’m an omnivore,” she smiles, before adding: “I’m always grateful for the cases I get.”
Despite Pannick calling her a ”formidable opponent”, Rose claims it was luck that helped her land the case that launched her firmly into the limelight.
In 2007 Rose was instructed by Leigh Day & Co partner Richard Steiner to act for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and the Corner House in their bid for a judicial review into the decision to drop a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into BAE Systems’ arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
“The only reason I was instructed was because somebody else dropped out,” says Rose. “I’ve never had so much fun in court. I just got up to open the case and had a wonderful opening - nobody had told the story before.”
The SFO inquiry centred on allegations of corruption between BAE and Saudi in the £43bn al-Yamamah deal in 1985, in which BAE supplied Tornado and Hawk jets and other equipment.
Rose eventually lost in the House of Lords, but not before forcing then Prime Minister Tony Blair to admit that Saudi had pressured him to drop the investigation by threatening to stop cooperating with intelligence work. “The story climaxed with the recipient of a £1bn bribe going off
to threaten the prime minister,” says Rose.
Joining the elite
Many believe it was this case that elevated Rose to elite barrister status. Indeed, Rose remembers sitting outside the courtroom with Pannick, whom she shared advocacy with, and Jonathan Sumption QC, who was on the opposing side, and feeling a sense of satisfaction. “It was five to two and we were waiting for the panel to come in, and I remember thinking there was never a better place to be,” Rose says smiling.
Bloxham v Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (2006) was another great case. Rose defended Freshfields from a £4.5m age discrimination claim brought by former partner Peter Bloxham. The firm had changed its pension scheme at a cost of £50m. When Bloxham retired in October 2006 he found himself with a much smaller pension pot than he had anticipated and subsequently sued the firm.
“I have a good relationship with [the instructing firm] Lewis Silkin,” explains Rose. “When the age regulations came in we did a series of seminars for managing partners, and it kind of came from there.”
The fact that Lewis Silkin instructed Rose was, she says, a “coup” for her. It was 2007 and Rose had only taken silk the previous year.
According to a lawyer close to the case, Rose’s enthusiasm as a new silk shone through. “She was overtly aggressive and played all sorts of games on her opposite number. Every time he [Bloxham’s barrister Tim Pitt Payne] got up to make an argument she’d interrupt him. She’s bright, intelligent and more aggressive than not.”
When Rose was instructed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission last September to defend it over a complaint from the parents of a barrister who was shot dead, the press portrayed Rose as cold-hearted and aggressive. The Daily Mail highlighted the work she did for the Home Office when it applied for an injunction to protect the identity of Maxine Carr.
“I don’t like to be called aggressive,” responds Rose. “I don’t think I am and it’s not necessary - it’s necessary to be tough. Would I have got the same treatment if I were a man?”
Yet she recognises the importance of the press in shaping the debate around her cases. The furore surrounding Binyam Mohamed is a case in point. “The real point was to get him out of Guantánamo Bay and to make enough of a fuss that they’d let him go,” Rose explains.
Such human rights cases often become personal missions for Rose. She is critical of the use of control orders. She speaks of the case of a father of five who has a modified control order on him, meaning he was moved from his home in Ilford to Leicester, where he was unable to see his family. “The children are bed-wetting and can’t sleep, it’s really upsetting for the whole family,” she says.
More recently she has attracted attention in the Jewish press. Rose was instructed by Bindmans partner John Halford to represent the parents of a 12-year-old boy who was refused a place at a Jewish school on the grounds that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not recognised by the chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. She won the case, forcing the school to review its admissions policy.
With three major cases in the pipeline and two significant whistle-blowing cases lined up for the autumn, Rose is almost ready for the summer break. She and her former television producer husband Peter Kessler are taking their two children on a trip around the country. Kessler gave up work three years ago to look after the children and be the ‘family organiser’. “He’s unbelievable,” Rose says, adding that without him nothing would get done.
It is almost 6pm and Rose is ready to go home; she would rather start work at 5am than work late. Those lever-arch files are calling, though.