When Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC grabbed the microphone from Alastair Campbell at The Lawyer Awards last Tuesday night, there were some worried looks around the Grosvenor House Hotel. Putting the Liberal Democrat peer in charge of a microphone can be a risky business if you are in any kind of a hurry. Eloquently, passionately and with no little wit, the man can most certainly talk.
Fortunately, on this occasion, he restricted himself to one gag, and to the delight of some in the audience, it was at Campbell’s expense. Opening his copy of the Civil Service (No 2) Bill at Section 6(3) Lord Lester turned his steely gaze on the evening’s host to quote “from one former special adviser to another: ‘Special advisers shall not exercise executive powers over civil servants’.”
Lord Lester was on stage to collect the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his achievements in more than 40 years at the bar. Lester turns 68 next month, but maintains a busy practice as a leading silk in administrative, employment, public and human rights law as well as playing an active political role. In fact, had his wife not contrived to ensure his presence on the night, he probably would have still been at the Lords embroiled in a debate about smacking.
Earlier in his career, he formulated the basis of all employment law in this country, working on what became the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Most important, though, is his work in the field of human rights, for which in 1998 Liberty made him the Human Rights Lawyer of the Year for England and Wales.
When he showed the gong to his mother, she asked: “Why only England and Wales?” Naturally, Lester expects her reaction to The Lawyer’s award to be: “Why only lifetime?”
We think that fellow Blackstone tenant David Pannick QC put it best. “When I started in 1980,” he told The Lawyer last year, “he 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. 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.”
Lester really is a lawyer who has changed things. For that, and for his commitment to unfashionable liberal values, we salute him.