Thursday 16 February 2006
The first practising solicitor to become an honorary QC, Lord Mishcon was a giant among lawyers and his clients included Princess Diana and Jeffrey Archer. He was also a big hitter in politics, reports Grania Langdon-Down
Lord Mishcon, who died last month aged 90 after a long illness, has been described as a true gentleman with such a powerful personality that when he walked into a crowded room a hush would come over the guests.
In the many tributes paid to the man who rose from humble beginnings to become a leading lawyer and a member of Labour’s front bench in the Lords, the overriding memories are of someone who made sure he knew his subject in depth, combining intellectual rigour with skilful advocacy, great charm and a penetrating ability to get to the heart of the problem.
He made his mark on every level: in international affairs, as a trusted emissary during the first informal conversations that resulted in the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994; in Parliament, as an incisive spokesman on legal affairs, local government and public causes; and on a personal level, through the wise counsel he offered his wide range of clients, who included Diana, Princess of Wales, former Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo, Jeffrey Archer, Robert Maxwell and entrepreneur Gerald Ronson.
Philip Freedman joined Victor Mishcon & Co, the firm founded by Lord Mishcon, in 1968 to do his articles. Now one of the senior partners in the property department of Mishcon de Reya, he says: ‘Lord Mishcon was an extremely good lawyer with a very analytical brain. He learnt law the traditional way, so he would always go back to basic principles and work out from that what was the right answer.
‘He was very charming but he could also be very tough as a litigation solicitor. His powers of concentration were immense. If he was dictating a long, detailed letter and was interrupted half-way through a sentence by a telephone call or someone coming into his office, he would deal with the query and then carry on dictation from the very word he left off.’
Ronnie Fox, founding partner of City firm Fox Williams, says: ‘Lord Mishcon was a man I intensely admired. He was held in enormous esteem by his partners and they indulged his wish to keep coming into the office well into his 80s. It was very much his firm and his partners honoured him for that. He was a gentleman – his skill lay in knowing how to deal with people, not a specialisation listed in [legal directory] Chambers but vital all the same.’
The son of a rabbi, Arnold, who had emigrated from Poland, and a teacher, Queenie, from the west country, Victor Mishcon was born in Brixton, south London, on 14 August 1915. A pupil at the City of London School, in common with a variety of other leading lawyers, such as Mr Fox and leading human rights advocate Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, he went on to qualify as a solicitor. In 1937 – aged just 22 – he took the audacious step of setting up his own firm, Victor Mishcon & Co, a one-man office in Brixton.
One of his most notable clients was Ruth Ellis. He acted for her in her divorce, but did not represent her as a criminal defendant, as murder was not within his field. He did however support the campaign to have her death sentence reversed, visiting her in prison before she became the last woman to be hanged in Britain in 1955.
Lord Mishcon’s speciality was problem-solving for high-profile clients. He was introduced to Princess Diana by Lord Palumbo, initially when she was being harassed by paparazzi. Lord Mishcon was active in handling her divorce, though partner Anthony Julius took the lead role.
In 1987, Lord Mishcon was in the High Court for Jeffrey Archer’s libel action, when the writer and politician received £500,000 in damages over a payment of £2,000 to a prostitute. More than a decade later, Archer was sentenced to four years for perjury and perverting the course of justice, after a former friend admitted having provided him with a false alibi.
The Times obituary commented that it was ‘unkindly said’ by fellow solicitors that Lord Mishcon was a client-grabber when it came to the rich and famous. But Mr Freedman says Lord Mishcon would have been ‘horrified’ at the suggestion. ‘He was very proper and very, very keen that the reputation of himself and his firm was always kept absolutely spotless. There was never any question of making an approach to someone else’s client. Clients came to him after being on the other side of a dispute, and being so impressed with his performance they wanted him to represent them.’
After running his own firm for slightly more than 50 years, he merged it in 1988 with part of Barletts de Reya, to become Mishcon de Reya. He was senior partner of the merged firm until 1992 when, aged 77, he became a consultant.
His secretary of 15 years, Mitzi Grant, says he came in every day until last year, dealing with personal clients and going to the Lords for debates on legal issues. ‘He was a real gentlemen and so kind. In all the years I worked for him, he never lost his temper, even when you had made a stupid mistake.’
His remarkable legal career was duly recognised in 1992, when he became the first practising solicitor to be appointed honorary Queen’s Counsel, on the recommendation of the then Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay. Two years later, he was made an honorary member of the Law Society ‘in recognition of his distinguished career as a solicitor and his considerable contribution to many areas of public life, particularly in local government in London and in Parliament’.
In 1999, Lord Mishcon played an important role as an intermediary during the debate on the Access to Justice Bill, which he feared would restrict the availability of legal aid. The current Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, spells out his contribution to the legal profession: ‘He was a wise and decent man, a great lawyer who founded and led a great firm. He was a man who put every community of which he was a member before himself.’ He adds: ‘The law, the Labour Party and the Lords have lost a very big man.’
Lord Mishcon was a committed socialist who joined the Labour Party at the age of 17, and alongside his legal work he enjoyed a parallel career in politics. His modest, self-effacing manner was part of his charm as, in his later years, he intervened effectively in debates in the Lords. He looked for clarity in legislation. During one Parliamentary committee, he said ‘I am in a minority of the committee in that I have a simple mind’, before pointing out that the proposed amendment would end up in a muddle.
It was on his return from the Second World War, during which he served in the Army, that his political career began. He was elected a Labour member of Lambeth Borough Council in 1945, becoming the youngest chairman of London County Council in 1954.
While he loved local government because it involved doing things for people ‘on the ground’, he also had ambitions to be an MP, standing four times without success. However, among his many contributions to public policy was his membership of the historic Wolfenden Committee, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
In 1978, he was made a life peer – Baron Mishcon of Lambeth – by the Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan. He was the chief Labour spokesman on home affairs from 1983 to1990. For the next two years, he was shadow Lord Chancellor and sat on the House of Lords’ select committee on medical ethics. He stood down in 1992, when he was succeeded by Lord Irvine of Lairg, who went on to become Lord Chancellor when Labour won the 1997 general election.
Lord Mishcon was also deeply committed to the Jewish cause. A former president of the Association of Jewish Youth, he was vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1967 to 1973. He was also chairman of the Institute of Jewish Studies, University College, London, and, as a member of the Council of Christians and Jews, he worked hard at developing understanding between the two faiths.
A respected voice in Israel, he protested strongly over the Shabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut in 1982. In later years, he came to play a significant role in what became the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994. King Hussein of Jordan and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, held several private meetings at Lord Mishcon’s country house in England. His unstinting efforts were rewarded with the Star of Jordan (First Class), presented to him by King Hussein in 1995.
Lord Mishcon married four times, and had two sons and a daughter by his second wife, Beryl Honor Posnansky. He passed on his love of the law to his children with one of his sons, Russell, becoming a solicitor, and his daughter Jane a barrister.
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist
Article originally Published in The Law Gazette.