John Beggs QC has made the shortlist for The Lawyer Magazine’s award for “Barrister of the Year.”
The decision has caused outrage in Liverpool because Mr Beggs represented the Hillsborough Police Match Commanders, including David Duckenfield, the officer who, catastrophically, ordered the Hillsborough gates to be opened.
I have no idea whether he would be a worthy winner of the accolade. The entry form asks, amongst other things, for:
“Full details of one benchmark case, illustrating how the individual barrister’s contribution made a significant difference to the outcome, including details of other parties / instructing groups”
The verdicts in the Hillsborough Inquest went against his clients in every possible respect, so it is difficult to see how that case could further his credentials very far, but there are other criteria too, so perhaps he could still win.
Margaret Aspinall, whose son James was killed in the disaster, told the Liverpool Echo:
“Whoever proposed and supported this nomination has clearly not spent even a day at the Hillsborough inquests.”
“We and the jury listened to Mr Beggs for the last two years and the jury’s verdict tells you all you need to know about how good a barrister he is.”
She has asked that the organisers of the awards withdraw Mr Beggs’s nomination. Although Mrs Aspinall’s request is entirely understandable, it would be very wrong for them to do so.
Mr Beggs is said to have cross-examined witnesses to try to show that fans were drunk, and that they bore some or all of the blame for the deaths. He was also criticised for playing a video montage of football hooliganism from other matches, including the Heysel disaster, presumably in order to reinforce his clients’ case that the police had good reason to fear what angry fans might do.
The falsity of the suggestion that the fans were to blame for their own deaths was in fact demonstrated as long ago as 1989 by Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry. One central claim, that they were drunk, was immediately debunked by the finding that the vast majority of blood samples taken from the deceased contained either no or “negligible” amounts of alcohol.
As for the conduct of the South Yorkshire Police at his Inquiry, Taylor wrote in 1989:
“It is a matter of regret that at the hearing, and in their submissions, the South Yorkshire Police were not prepared to concede they were in any respect at fault in what occurred. Mr Duckenfield, under pressure of cross-examination, apologised for blaming the Liverpool fans for causing the deaths. But, that apart, the police case was to blame the fans for being late and drunk, and to blame the Club for failing to monitor the pens. … Such an unrealistic approach gives cause for anxiety as to whether lessons have been learned. It would have been more seemly and encouraging for the future if responsibility had been faced.”
Given the way Mr Beggs is said to have conducted the Police case at the Inquest, these seem to have been prescient words. To blame the victims at the 1989 Inquiry was unseemly; to continue to do so at the inquest now appears to have been disgraceful, for all sorts of reasons; and it makes the latest round of Police apologies appear even more hollow than the last.
So it is not hard to see why Mr Beggs should have become something of a hate figure amongst the bereaved.
He seems to have come across as an aggressive and alienating character and Mrs Aspinall is not alone in finding the idea of him quaffing champagne at the O2 centre on June 29th a bit much to stomach.
But is it fair to blame him in this way?
The crucial point, which should not be too hard to grasp but always seems to be, is that a barrister is not disgraceful because his clients are disgraceful, any more than he is saintly because his clients are saintly. One of Beggs’ opponents, Mark George QC, might have been on the side of the angels at the Inquest but that is not because he is an angel (although of course he may be). On other occasions, as a leading criminal defender, Mr George will have put his considerable forensic skill to work on behalf of characters who have probably behaved worse than Mr Duckenfield. There is nothing disgraceful about Mr George doing that, either.
If barristers were not required to represent bad people as well as good we would not have justice hammered out, admittedly often painfully, in court; we would have decisions based on the pre-judgement – literally “prejudice” – of lawyers. That would hardly be an improvement.
It is sometimes thought that this “Cab-rank rule” applies only to criminal barristers. That is not so; it applies to all barristers. In its current form (Rule C29 of the Code of Conduct) it reads as follows:
If you receive instructions from a professional client , and you are:
1. -a self-employed barrister instructed by a professional client ;
and the instructions are appropriate taking into account the experience, seniority and field of practice of yourself … you must, subject to Rule C30 below, accept the instructions addressed specifically to you, irrespective of:
a. – the identity of the client;
b. – the nature of the case to which the instructions relate;
c. – whether the client is paying privately or is publicly funded; and
- -any belief or opinion which you may have formed as to the character, reputation, cause, conduct, guilt or innocence of the client .
Mr Beggs Chambers’ website claims, I am sure accurately, that he is “the go-to counsel for prosecuting or defending police officers in serious misconduct cases and for advice on operational matters including public order issues,” and that he has a particular expertise in “inquests and inquiries.” Unless any of the specific “get-outs” in rule C30 applied (which seems very unlikely) then he was required to accept the instructions, whatever he may privately have thought about South Yorkshire Police.
Having accepted the brief Mr Beggs was then under a duty to:
“ … promote fearlessly and by all proper and lawful means the client’s best interests;
2. you must do so without regard to your own interests or to any consequences to you …;
- you must do so without regard to the consequences to any other person …;”
Nor does it make any difference that Mr Beggs was appearing at an inquest, a hearing which is, in theory at any rate, meant to be less adversarial than an ordinary court. If he had failed to try his hardest to advance his clients’ case he would still have been in breach of his professional duty.
There are many ways to skin a cat. No doubt different advocates would have conducted the cross-examination differently and perhaps less aggressively; and there are of course limits beyond which no advocate should go; when forceful advocacy tips over into bullying. But that aside, assuming Mr Beggs was doing his honest best to advance the police case, however misguided it may have been, there are no grounds to criticise him merely because he tried to persuade the jury that the police were not to blame. In fact the denigration of him for doing just that surely vindicates the Code of Conduct’s requirement for barristers to act “fearlessly.”
And painful though it must have been for the bereaved to watch Mr Beggs in action, the jury’s verdict is actually much stronger because of his participation. Despite the best efforts of the country’s leading police barrister a jury has decided that the fans were unlawfully killed, and that they were blameless. An inquest in which the barrister representing the Police had pulled punches for fear of upsetting the living would, in the end, have been an inquest that did not deliver justice for the dead.
(This article first appeared in Legal Voice on 19th May 2016)