I want doesn't get

The Honourable Michael Beloff QC only ever stated that it was his “present intention” to join Matrix Chambers. But to say that Beloff, one of the UK's most highly sought-after public and sports law silks, has taken his time to decide whether to rejoin those friends and colleagues who quit 4-5 Gray's Inn Square to establish Matrix, is something of an understatement. More than 14 months have passed since Beloff was first invited to join (The Lawyer, 17 January 2000), and nearly a year has gone by since he played the “present intention” card. But even last month, it was clear in an interview with The Lawyer that his mind was still unmade.

“I'm very conscious that certain politicians say, 'I'm never going to do something', and then go off and do it. It's absurd to put yourself in such a position if you have to change your mind due to circumstances and someone can criticise you,” said Beloff. “I've been given a huge series of options. I've had some kind of approach from every major set in my areas of interest, with one exception. But this would probably be my last move in my mature years and I must make certain that I get it right.”

One of the main reasons for his delay is now obvious. The one set in his field not to have courted his affections is the set he has ended up joining – Blackstone Chambers.

In the end, Beloff, after so much deliberation, uncertainty and conflicting signals, had to make the approach to his former set himself.

But despite playing so hard to get, Blackstone's tenants recognised the benefit of being joined by such a prominent silk – even one not currently in full-time practice – and duly voted Beloff in at a chambers meeting last Monday (26 March). Senior clerk Martin Smith and his team at Blackstone will assume responsibility for Beloff's practice from 6 April.

The news undoubtedly came as a shock to all concerned – Matrix was only told that he would not be joining it last Tuesday (27 March). The following day, Matrix released a short press statement, with a little less alacrity than is customary for a set commonly dubbed “the set of spin”. It simply stated: “We have been aware for some time that there was uncertainty about where Michael wished to continue his professional practice. We wish him well at Blackstone.”

Not quite the PR fanfare that accompanied Matrix's launch last year, which is largely responsible not only for its nickname, but for the widespread criticism the set has faced over an alleged lack of substance. “There's no such thing as 'human rights law',” the detractors said – and most still do. “Okay, so you've brought together a collection of some highly talented individual practitioners, but that does not a successful chambers make,” they said.

Many will undoubtedly see Beloff's decision as a vindication of their views and point to the percieved scarcity with which Matrix's tenants have appeared in cases turning on human rights issues. Several of its own tenants, however, openly concede that their purpose was not, in fact, to create a “human rights set”, and that it was simply PR-speak. Certainly, few would argue with the abilities of the likes of Rabinder Singh, Clare Montgomery QC, Philippe Sands, Helen Mountfield, Ben Emmerson QC, Antony White and others. However, it is questioned whether the theory of bringing together so many disparate fields of work, from crime to public to commercial law, under the umbrella of human rights, in what is a relatively small set of chambers, can work in practice. After all, the long-term trend at the bar has been to concentrate on core practice areas, demerging civil and criminal groups and developing specialist teams.

“If it really was the case that they depended upon my coming, which I doubt, I'd find that difficult, especially at this juncture of my life and with all my other obligations,” said Beloff in February.

But Beloff does have strong ties with some of Matrix's most prominent figures, not least Cherie Booth QC. Several of the “Matrix seven” were brought into 4-5 Gray's Inn and nurtured by Beloff, including Booth, Tim Kerr and Singh. “I remember writing to Singh cold when he got a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard from Cambridge, and saying that if he ever wanted to come to the bar he should come and see me, and he did,” said Beloff. Indeed, he predicts that the supremely gifted Singh could be the first Asian Lord Chief Justice.

But the most cynical observers remark that Beloff, because of the perceived conflict and potential prejudice, has a greater chance of getting a peerage if he is not working in such close proximity to Booth. Few, however, would argue that such an illustrious career does not deserve some official recognition.

Matrix's chief executive Nicholas Martin will not comment directly on Beloff's decision. Instead he points to the set's AGM, held on Saturday (31 March), where fresh articles of association and a new business plan were adopted.

“I feel that things have gone very well both in market terms and income terms. We are as committed as ever to doing things in a modern and innovative way,” he says, adding that Singh has been involved in the only two cases where there has been a declaration of incompatibility with the Human Rights Act. “Some said that it would be very risky for people [to join Matrix]. That has not been borne out,” he says.

Just a month ago, Beloff's home for the last 16 years, 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, was joint favourite with Matrix to secure his services. Many at the set believed they could tempt him to stay, and will be extremely disappointed to have failed, especially after its proposed merger with Monckton Chambers fell through.

Beloff certainly took it personally when the chambers he had helped to shape was shaken by the defections that led to the creation of Matrix, resigning as head of chambers in January 2000. “To see this sudden exodus made me very upset. When I came to Trinity, I just wasn't there to deal with the tensions that afflict any large set. I must take some responsibility for what happened. That is why I resigned as head of chambers before the whole thing blew apart. Something like 16 have now gone in various directions,” said Beloff.

Of course, there were other sets that are believed to have made overtures to Beloff. These include 11 King's Bench Walk and magic circle set Brick Court, which, particularly with the arrival of Richard Gordon QC in 1999, has been building a solid public law capability to complement its massive strength in commercial and European law.

But no, Beloff wanted something else. And despite the clamour for his hand in marriage, he ended up doing the proposing.

Beloff spent nearly 20 years, from 1968 to 1985, at Blackstone (then 2 Hare Court); it is home to his former pupils David Pannick QC and joint head Charles Flint QC. It is also the set that indisputably boasts the premier public law practice at the bar and arguably holds the ascendancy in Beloff's other favoured discipline, sports law, with a strong crop of juniors as well as highly-rated young silk Ian Mill QC.

As Flint says, “his practice fits perfectly”, so why the initial reluctance?

Beloff is not in full-time practice, with much of his time reserved for his duties as president of Trinity College, Oxford. But he remains an outstanding advocate with a practice that, when motoring on all cylinders, gives Beloff the earning power to join the £1m-a-year club.

There was, of course, the spat between Beloff's 4-5 Gray's Inn and Blackstone over pupillage recruitment. The dispute first flared up over accusations that sets outside the bar's own recruitment scheme – notably Blackstone – could manipulate their timetables to claim the best students. Sets such as 4-5 Gray's Inn that were part of the Pupillage Application Clearing House, were powerless because the scheme did not allow them to make early offers to preferred students (The Lawyer, 25 October 1999). The row became even more personal when a pupil who had originally accepted an early offer from Blackstone broke that agreement in order to go to 4-5 Gray's Inn (The Lawyer, 29 November 1999).

“Reading this as a personal dispute between Beloff and Blackstone is a misunderstanding,” says Blackstone joint head Presiley Baxendale QC. “It underestimates the strength of the friendships that have been developed since his time at what was then 2 Hare Court.”

It was during Beloff's first stint at the set that the public law foundations were laid, which have been the principal driver for the set's recent success. It was one of the first sets to capitalise on the burgeoning appeal of public law to both individuals and companies and has consequently been involved in nearly all of the major public law disputes of recent years, including Camelot, Diane Blood, Railtrack, the King of Greece and Alconbury.

“During the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, individuals and companies realised that they could take on public bodies in a way they hadn't understood they could,” says Baxendale. “The fact that we do commercial, European and employment law is so useful.”

But Blackstone does not make a habit of senior lateral hires. It has stuck resolutely to the task of organic growth – at least until the last two months, that is.

In addition to Beloff, Blackstone has recently taken on the highly-rated public and planning silk John Howell QC from rival 4 Breams Buildings. But despite the new arrivals, the set has no plans to expand into planning law, or to make further lateral hires. Flint at Blackstone says: “We have a pretty clear plan. For a number of years, our main emphasis has been to recruit at the junior end. We have no plans for substantial expansion. We're very happy with our present size and we simply want to retain the flexibility to move with developments in the law.”

Baxendale adds: “Our juniors are so used to dealing with European, commercial and public law that they can bring them together and look at it more laterally.”

But, with Howell and now Beloff – even a Beloff preoccupied with academic duties – Blackstone has thrown down the gauntlet to its rivals. 4-5 Gray's Inn's public law practice was decimated by the Matrix departures (although it remains very strong in planning-related public law matters), 4 Breams Buildings has lost one of its leading lights, 11 King's Bench Walk just does not seem to be going at full steam and Beloff's move to Blackstone is Matrix's most embarrassing loss to date – a very public snub. The next battleground is likely to be the rapidly expanding area of public international law, where both Blackstone and Matrix have capabilities.

But, of course, Beloff has yet to physically relocate to Blackstone, so there is still time for him to change his mind. Baxendale and Flint must be hoping that this time he does not discover any other hidden intentions before 6 April. n

MICHAEL BELOFF QC

Called to the bar: 1967

Appointed QC: 1981

Areas of practice: Public, commercial, EU law, employment, sports and media.

Professional achievements/associations: Former head of chambers, 4-5 Gray's Inn Square; president of Trinity College, Oxford; Court of Appeal judge in Jersey and Guernsey from 1995; deputy High Court judge from 1989; vice-president and emeritus chairman of the Administrative Law Bar Association; arbitrator at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne; adjudicated at both the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics; has appeared in more than 350 reported cases.

Career: Beloff has appeared in three major public inquiries – Crown Agents 1980-82, Brixton Disorders 1981 (Scarman Inquiry) and Sentosa Collision (Singapore) 1983; chaired inquiry into academic plagiarism for University of Oxford 1987; in addition to acting for numerous corporations, governments, regulators, newspapers, banks and sporting organisations, Beloff has also represented many personalities. These have included the Chief Rabbi, the Aga Khan, L Ron Hubbard, Robert Maxwell, Ernest Saunders, the Al Fayeds, the prime ministers of three countries, Lennox Lewis, George Best, Sebastian Coe and David Coulthard.

“A sensible reformer,” is how the Honourable Michael Beloff QC would like to be remembered. Not that he is going anywhere just yet – other than Blackstone Chambers, of course. Beloff's career has already spanned five decades, but he shows no signs of relenting. While his practice is only currently running at half speed, his commitments as president of Trinity College, Oxford, keep him fully occupied.

“I earn £50,000 as president of Trinity. I'd imagine that I'd be earning a considerably larger amount in full-time practice at the bar. But money isn't everything – the lower income is a price I gladly pay,” he says.

Beloff graduated from Oxford in 1963 with a first in history before joining 2 Hare Court (now Blackstone) in 1967 after completing an MA. During his first tenancy at the set he was pupil master to two of Blackstone's current stars, joint head of chambers Charles Flint QC and David Pannick QC. He was lured away in 1985 by 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, where he was joint head of chambers from 1993 until January 2000.

Despite building a highly successful practice that has earned him entrance to the £1m-a-year club, Beloff has remained largely anonymous to the public, until he lost the infamous Gillian Taylforth case to the late, great George Carman QC. “The Gillian Taylforth case against George got the most publicity in my whole career. I felt a little rueful that I'd done all these major cases deciding important points of law in the House of Lords and no member of the public had ever heard of me. Then, the moment I do the Taylforth trial, because it has simulated sex in a Range Rover in the forecourt of the Royal Courts of Justice, I become a household name.”

“Gorgeous” George was one of Beloff's regular sparring partners, and in the bathroom of his Trinity residence there is a cartoon depicting Carman in action, with the caption “The greatest show on earth”.

But his relative anonymity outside of the law is not something that really concerns him. “Public law is a method of involving oneself in public affairs,” he says. “You know that you're often in the story behind the headlines.”

Beloff certainly hasn't experienced the infamy of some. Of his old school pal, ex-MP Jonathan Aitken, Beloff says: “The easiest thing for someone like [Aitken] is to have said, 'It's true, quite right, it shouldn't have happened, but you don't think I, who am worth several million pounds, could be bribed by a £750 hotel bill'. Was Jonathan's acceptance of hospitality any worse than Mandelson's in accepting a loan for his house? What was destructive was to lie about it.”

Millionaire novelist and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Archer, who will face accusations of lying in his libel trial against the Daily Star in 1987 at the Old Bailey in May, is another friend. “I asked him [Archer], 'Now you have a bit of time on your hands, would you like to come and speak at the Political Society at Trinity?” He's fixed to come a week before his trial at the Old Bailey,” says Beloff. “He was actually very close to two successive prime ministers over a long period of time, and so he must have something.”

Beloff's work at Trinity is building towards the college's 450th anniversary in 2005. When that is completed he intends to retire and return to the bar full time, aged 63. By that time he might just be joined by the rest of his family. “I've done nothing to encourage my children into the law, but my daughter has articles at Slaughter and May and my son is completing his bar finals. My wife is a JP, so it must be in the blood,” he says.

By Matheu Swallow and Bal Khela