Above the law

After a stomach-churning ride in Charles Flint QC’s flying machine, Matheu Swallow finds out what makes this multitalented silk tick – and it certainly isn’t gardening

“Let me start by running through the safety procedures quickly,” Charles Flint QC says. (Pause.) “There aren’t any.”

Great. Here I am, no parachute, no air traffic control, well… no nothing, really – just Flint’s slightly flimsy-looking biplane ready to set off down the grass runway at White Waltham Airfield, near Maidenhead. Oh, and plenty of faith in Flint’s flying ability, obviously.

Two and a half thousand feet up might not be the most conventional setting for an interview – there certainly are not too many opportunities for taking notes – but the opportunity of doing a loop-the-loop with the joint head of Blackstone Chambers was not one to be passed up lightly.

Flint takes me through the basics of his flying machine (and blimey, it looks basic) before we set off down the runway and away. My frame of mind is not being helped by the persistent hangover induced after the previous night’s soiree with a couple of City partners, complete with Blackstone’s senior clerk Martin Smith’s dramatic depiction of his own white-knuckle experience in the air with Flint.

As we head off down the runway, it is impossible not to feel at least a little uncomfortable. Not because you are putting your life in the hands of someone you barely know – in one way or another you do that every day. No, more because I am sitting in the plane of a very senior and respected silk, his legs almost wrapped round my body, such are the confines of his tiny plane, communicating with difficulty above the noise of his engine via an intercom.

Most bizarre is when we begin the tricks. To avoid a stomach upset, Flint’s calmly-delivered advice on how best to handle a loop-the-loop is to compress your stomach as you go into it and then on the exit relax with an aggressive grunt. (Grunting simultaneously with such an esteemed member of the bar is a highly unusual experience.)

But Flint’s easygoing manner puts you instantly at ease. I feel like a troubled client. His explanations of manoeuvres, of our position, of the nuclear power plant at seven o’clock, which was the subject of a “very disappointing” Court of Appeal judgment against a client recently, and his instructions when I take control (oh yes, he let me fly) are deliberate, precise and delivered with a calm authority.

The trouble is, his unflappable serenity can tend to make you complacent. “How do you feel about doing a dive?” I give him an enthusiastic response. And then he delivers the shocking news that this requires turning off the engine. Now, you never mentioned that before.

At the end of our flight we circle the airfield before coming into land (at this point my stomach is telling me that enough is enough) at what seems a rather acute angle. Thirty seconds later and we are taxiing back to give second junior clerk Mike Couser his turn.

“Did you enjoy that then?” Flint enquires politely. “Absolutely,” I say, “although I was a little worried at our approach to landing.” “Yes, so was I,” confides Flint. (Was he joking? I still can’t work it out.)

It is a different story back in London. Two weeks after the in-flight grunting experience we meet again, this time in the more sombre surroundings of his Temple-based chambers at Blackstone. Any lingering image of Flint as the Last Boy Scout is quickly dispelled. Still equally charming, but no longer one of the boys but more the gentleman (immaculately presented with his previously unruly hair brought firmly into line) and one with a tougher exterior. Difficult – or more likely just unwanted – questions are dealt with a wry chuckle and a simple “no comment”. An image, in other words, which befits his role as a respected commercial and public law silk. Flint’s particular specialisation spans financial services, commercial fraud and sports law, his work in the latter field being the most eye-catching of late.

In a battle that will see him come up against one of the doyens of the bar, Lord Grabiner QC, Flint has been instructed to act for the Football League on its dispute with ITV Digital owners Carlton and Granada. That dispute has now reached the doors of the court, with Slaughter and May issuing the first salvo on behalf of the defunct TV company’s owners, issuing a claim for a declaration of non-liability from the court (widely regarded as simply a bit of grandstanding for the press). The league hit back with a counterclaim for all monies owed, amounting to £178.5m, and Flint – now instructed by Lawrence Graham – hopes that the court will expedite proceedings for a trial date in August, or even July.

I was hoping, of course, for the inside track on the ITV Digital saga, and perhaps even some dirt on football’s executive. But Flint does not play ball. Perhaps not because he does not want to, but because it does not actually interest him. No, Flint’s approach to sport is the same as that to any of his other varied areas of practice. To him sport is a business and the business of sport is what interests him.

His passion extends to presenting the argument in court; for Flint, it is the thrill of courtroom advocacy that drives him professionally and a passion for the issues at stake, the judicial process and the interests of his client. Unfortunately for me, and despite his adventurous nature, Flint is clearly not a genuine sports lover.

Leaning back in his chair in the conference room to consider an answer, he fiddles with his glasses. “I enjoy rugby, but I’m not an avid fan,” he admits.

Flint first became involved in sports-related disputes some 20 years ago when he sought a boxing licence for UK boxer John Conti, but for many years he did not believe that a specifically defined genre of ‘sports law’ actually existed. His experience since, encompassing many of the most publicised doping cases – including Diane Modahl, Mats Wilander, Linford Christie, Marlene Ottey and Dougie Walker – has since led him to change his view.

“On doping, there is in that field a developing ‘international sporting law’ that is not tied to any national system of law,” he says. In particular, Flint singles out the Modahl judgment as one for further examination. “It hasn’t been analysed carefully enough,” he argues. “It raises questions on the nature of the disciplinary process. If sporting disciplinary tribunals are treated as arbitrations, rather than as national tribunals, the scope for judicial intervention is much more limited.

“For example, in Wilander v ITC, we ended up with two outings to the Court of Appeal. I’d question whether it should even have got off the ground.”

But Flint is determined that sport does not dominate our interview. After all, he has recently been involved in two of the largest commercial fraud cases in history – the $3bn (£2.06bn) dispute over the interests of the Abacha family and the $15bn ($10.3bn) litigation between Prince Jefri and the Sultan of Brunei.

Then there is his work in the financial services field. Flint is a member of the Lawyers Consultative Working Group, established by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), to advise on issues arising from the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. “An interesting measure of the FSA will be how it responds to Enron,” he muses. “There are some fairly extreme ideas being floated in the USA, so it will be very interesting to see how far the FSA sees need for greater control.”

Flint’s easy manner belies the ego that has to lie somewhere at the heart of any successful advocate. “My practice is unusually wide-ranging, a lot more so than a lot of well-known commercial names,” he says, grinning again.

In addition to a busy practice, Flint is responsible, with joint head Presiley Baxendale QC and the other two members of the management team, senior clerk Martin Smith and practice manager Julia Hornor, for the running of chambers.

Since it is difficult to imagine Baxendale dealing with any dirty business in chambers, it must be assumed that when the roles are shared out, Flint gets to play bad cop. Flint is not about to be drawn, but if he was left to deal with a difficult member of chambers, a trip in his magnificent flying machine would surely sort them out.
Charles Flint QC
QC and joint head of chambers
Blackstone Chambers