“My first client was hanged, which wasn't a good start.” The experience of David Pannick QC's first case angered him so much that he wrote a book about it: Judicial Review of the Death Penalty. But if many subsequent clients were to have gone the same way, he may have been forced to pursue his alternative career as a journalist – although he is not sure his liver would have been up to it.
As it was, under the guidance of Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC and pupil master Michael Beloff QC at 2 Hare Court (now Blackstone Chambers), Pannick's aptitude for advocacy very quickly became apparent.
In the week of our interview, Pannick was in the House of Lords twice, first in Zeqiri – a two-day hearing on the issue of whether or not asylum seekers could be returned to Germany – and then again on Thursday, in a case about Sellafield Nuclear Power Station's new MOX plant, acting for BNFL. Pannick also spent the week advising the FA Premiership on the proposed players' strike.
Pannick has acted in many of the leading public law cases of the past 20 years, including Spycatcher, Brind and ex parte Iris Bentley, representing a wide range of clients from the late Princess of Wales to the Reverend Moon, Mohammed Al-Fayed and the Chief Rabbi. In 1999 he had a memorable victory in the European Court of Human Rights, establishing that it was unlawful for the Ministry of Defence to exclude homosexuals from the armed forces, and more recently he won for Camelot, establishing that it had been excluded unlawfully from the bidding process for the new licence for the National Lottery.
Pannick has not quite been able to give up his attraction to writing, though, contributing a fortnightly column to The Times since 1991. He says that, after spending all his time putting forward other people's arguments, he enjoys the opportunity of expressing his own, many of which are more than a little forthright. Last week's offering challenged Mr Justice Jack's ruling in the case of a professional footballer trying to prevent the publication of a kiss-and-tell story, while last month he attacked the Government over its plans to suspend Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights after the 11 September attacks on the US.
Neither is Pannick shy of criticising his own profession. “I think the legal profession – not just the bar but solicitors as well – has for decades opposed almost every reform and I simply don't understand it. I think it's not in the legal professions' interest to present a dinosaur image and it's certainly not in the public interest. And when lawyers complain that they're perceived by the public as out of touch and concerned only by their own interest, we have only ourselves to blame.”
“I'd be happy if the [silk] system was axed. It's nonsense to have a politician dishing out rewards to a supposedly independent profession”
David Pannick QC, Blackstone Chambers
Or, perhaps, the system of awarding silk. “I'd be more than happy if the system was axed,” he says. “I think it's nonsense to have a politician each year dishing out rewards to a supposedly independent profession.”
It remains relatively unusual for a member of the bar to express such frank and critical views so publicly. Pannick maintains that his columns have never got him into trouble, at least not as far as he is aware – after all, he continues to act for the very Government he criticises. In fact, after writing a particular column, he was rewarded with his most 'lucrative' – professionally rather than financially – brief, when he acted for the actors and actresses of television soap Coronation Street.
“The solicitor [representing the actors] had read one of my columns, which was about the trial of Deidre Rashid, and she could see that I was really interested in Coronation Street – which I am – and so I got the brief; but otherwise I don't think it's had any impact on my career whatsoever.”
Pannick is the first member of his family to enter the legal profession. His father, who died last year, was a commercial traveller for a grocery company before owning a shoe shop, while his mother was a school secretary. Pannick says that, at this stage, his three children, from his marriage to Denise who tragically died of cancer two and a half years ago, are equally unlikely to follow in his footsteps.
“David's a family man,” says Lord Lester, “who suffered great personal tragedy when he lost his marvellous wife Denise, but he coped extraordinarily well, bringing up a young family while maintaining an extraordinary practice.”
Pannick's eldest son is now 18 and is reading medicine at Cambridge. “A serious career,” says Pannick. “Something of real value to the community as opposed to arguing cases and entertaining yourself all day.”
Pannick does look like he is enjoying himself when in court. Before their Lordships arrival at Committee Room 1 for the Zeqiri hearing, Pannick can be found chatting amiably with his colleagues, perhaps discussing last night's episode of Coronation Street or the previous weekend's performance of his chosen football club, Arsenal. Once in court he appears no less relaxed, attending to the questions of their Lordships. But it's hard to believe that being a barrister for Pannick is just a bit of fun, especially when his mentor is Lord Lester.
“When I started in 1980, he [Lester] was arguing about human rights in the courts, and when he cited cases from Strasbourg or cases from the US Supreme Courts, judges would ignore him and opponents would snigger,” says Pannick. “But by persistence and reasoned arguments he won the battle both legally and politically, leading to the Human Rights Act and changing the whole atmosphere in which human rights cases are argued and decided. And that is, I think, a formidable achievement.”
Lord Lester is more than happy to return the compliment. “David is the outstanding public lawyer now in practice,” he says. “It's his speed of operation and capacity to do a vast number of cases well that is extraordinary. He's not famous for his bedside manner with clients, but they like that because they get the service they want very quickly.”
Before everyone gets carried away with mutual appreciation it ought to be remembered that things do not always run smoothly, even for a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, like Pannick.
There was the time when he was advising the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in conference. The conference went on late into the evening and everyone in chambers had gone home, unfortunately forgetting to tell Pannick that the door to the conference room did not open from the inside. Pannick was forced to lead members of the MoD and then solicitors and clients out of the window.
Or when, as a junior, Pannick was doing a judicial review for the Government. On the second day the snow came down and Pannick couldn't get to the train station. He went home content in the knowledge that surely no one else would make it either. Unfortunately, everyone else did get to court, in particular the judge, who had listened to the weather forecast the night before. The judge had decided, as a precaution, that he would sleep in his room in the Royal Courts of Justice overnight. “That was an awful experience,” says Pannick. “It was resolved by me grovelling the next day and writing a letter of apology. The case had to be refixed.”
More recently, Pannick was caught out again, this time in Strasbourg, where he was appearing in the case of Thomson and Venables, the killers of James Bulger. Anyone walking the streets on the first morning of the trial would have seen our caped crusader running the two miles to court, unable to find a taxi. “That was pretty horrible,” he recalls. “I was catching my breath while Edward Fitzgerald [QC] made his opening submissions.”
Despite the odd mishap, though, Pannick is held in almost universal high regard, surely making him a potentially ideal candidate for the judiciary? Not so.
“I'm not keen to be a judge. I'm not keen because I value my independence and I enjoy the work. One week I'm arguing for a prisoner that he has the right to artificially inseminate his wife, the next I'm arguing for the Home Secretary that Myra Hindley should stay in prison for the whole of her life. I like that, and I like also to be able to write, and if I went to the bench then I'd have to give up a lot,” he says.
Nor does Pannick have any great ambition to drive fundamental change to the law, as Lester has done. If he was to change any piece of legislation, Pannick says it would be an amendment to the Contempt of Court Act 1981 to allow for research by the Lord Chancellor's department into the way that jurys decide cases.
“I don't think you can take sensible decisions about the future of the criminal justice system without some serious research into how juries conduct their duties,” states Pannick.
So, what is it about Pannick's courtroom style that makes him such an able advocate? Lester thinks it has something to do with his “wry sense of humour”, saying that he especially enjoys making fun of ageing peers who appear against him by emphasising their absurd titles again and again, to the puzzlement of judges.
“He is particularly adept at one-liners that prejudice the judges in his favour,” says Lester. “I once did a case on sadomasochism against him in the European Court of Human Rights where he said to the rather conservative judges there, 'Lord Lester seeks to argue that genital torture is a fundamental human right'. That was quite enough [for the judges] to dispose of the case there and then.”