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November 29, 2012 11:17 am
Hours after the prime minister announced that Lord Justice Leveson would lead an inquiry into the ethics and practices of the press, most of the country’s judiciary crowded into the Mansion House for the judges’ dinner – an annual ritual in the heart of the City of London that is heavy on both pomp and port.
Among those in white-tied attendance that evening in July 2011 was Sir Brian Leveson, sitting at the top of a table sprinkled with fellow judges, the odd politician and senior police officer, and assorted journalists. Small and bespectacled, the 63-year-old projected no hauteur in the wake of his new role – part of which would be to probe the relationships between those very same constituents of the establishment.
Igor Judge, the Lord Chief Justice – the most senior judge in England and Wales – and in effect the master of ceremonies that summer evening, proclaimed that the judiciary was one of the last respected and unsullied parts of society.
“The country is in the middle of the crisis that has embroiled the press and the politicians and the police,” he said in his introductory speech. “Public revulsion has led to the public demand for a judge-led inquiry . . . The public understands that we are indeed independent. Not infallible certainly, but independent, always. It is a cherished quality.”
It is this independence above all that legal commentators have praised in Sir Brian.
“He’s manifestly fair-minded and will carefully consider all the evidence to get to the right result,” says Hugh Tomlinson QC, who presented the inquiry with plans for a tougher press regulator backed by legislation. “Whether you agree with that decision or not, you won’t be able to fault his fairness.”
Lawyers who know Sir Brian unanimously describe him as careful, detailed and unassuming.
“He has a very good courtroom style; he is not bombastic or arrogant,” says Sir Anthony Hooper, a former Court of Appeal judge who is now a partner at Fulcrum Chambers. “During the inquiry hearings, I thought he just got on with it. There may have been a temptation to show off for the cameras – he showed no sign of that.”
His rise up the ranks of the profession was “meteoric”, according to Sasha Wass QC, who has known Sir Brian for 30 years. He took silk – which denotes the most senior barristers, known as Queen’s Counsel – aged just 36. He became a judge in 1995, and a Lord Justice of Appeal in 2006.
Sir Brian was born into a medical family and the expectation was that he would follow that career path, according to one family friend, and Sir Brian duly studied sciences for his A-levels. It was his enthusiastic involvement in his school debating society that suggested a career in the law.
But it was journalism rather than law that first piqued the interest of Sir Brian: at Liverpool College he printed the school magazine, the Mitre.
It seems Sir Brian himself would agree with the description of “unassuming”. In one of his rare interviews, he told a legal blog in 2007: “I go to Tesco’s and I have teenage children who keep my feet on the ground. I don’t live on a rough estate, but otherwise I lead a normal life.”
In some respects Sir Brian was a surprise choice when David Cameron, prime minister, first appointed him to lead the inquiry: unlike, for example, Sir Michael Tugendhat or Sir David Eady, Sir Brian is not known for his judgments on media law.
Neither is he part of the clique of senior lawyers and judges belonging to the “north London chattering classes”, as one barrister describes it. “He is a private man; he is a Liverpool man born and bred.”
None of his cases is more Liverpudlian than that of Ken Dodd, who faced charges of tax evasion in 1989. Sir Brian was the prosecutor and it was one of his highest-profile defeats as his detailed, forensic delivery failed to persuade a local jury to convict one of the city’s most beloved sons, who charmed even from the witness box.
If the Dodd case equated to a crash-course in media attention, Sir Brian’s prosecution of Rosemary West, convicted in 1995 of murdering 10 young women with her husband, would ensure he became inured to headlines in the publications that he has had to scrutinise for the past 16 months.
“He had a very attractive way with the jury,” said Ms Wass, who was on the team defending West – although that did not stop the opposing teams from dining together in the evenings. “He is very good at explaining things, which is one of the most important attributes as a criminal prosecutor.”
While Sir Brian is determined that the report bearing his name should not gather “dust on an academic’s shelf”, he has not let the inquiry define his life. He has remained chairman of the Sentencing Council – a role that demands organisation and administration – and resumed his role sitting in the Court of Appeal, hearing challenges to sentences passed during the riots in England that defined the end of the summer of 2011.
Next year, Lord Judge is to step down as Lord Chief Justice. Sir Brian’s name makes an unofficial shortlist among the legal cognoscenti of those tipped to succeed him, along with Lord Justice (John) Thomas, Lady Justice (Heather) Hallett, and Lord Justice (Anthony) Hughes.
“The amount of administration and work you have to do as Lord Chief Justice is just huge,” says one former colleague of Sir Brian. “Quite apart from the public role, there is the liaising with government. I’d say Brian, particularly after this inquiry, would not be daunted by that.”
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