It’s not wrong to consider John Beggs QC for barrister of the year

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

  1. -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 …;

  1. 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)

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

17 thoughts on “It’s not wrong to consider John Beggs QC for barrister of the year”

  1. Avoid using the word ‘not’ – especially in headlines. Express a negative in a positive form. So your headline reads:-

    It’s not wrong to consider John Beggs QC for barrister of the year

    This could be better expressed:

    There is nothing wrong considering John Beggs QC for barrister of the year

    Or you could try:- What’s wrong with considering John Beggs QC for barrister of the year?

    Tip from that famous book “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk jr and E.B. White. Essential reading for all writers!

    Kind regards

  2. I tend to disagree, he must advance his clients case using means that are both lawful (which they no doubt were) and proper. I don’t regard advancing a claim that had been thoroughly debunked and that his client had already apologised for, to be proper. From what I’ve read, some of the claims he’s made on behalf of Surrey Police around Deepcut don’t seem all that proper either.

    For the term ‘proper’ to have any meaning at all it must be distinct from what is ‘lawful’. When Barristers defend their colleagues in the media (as also happened around the Bellfield trial) this distinction tends to go out the window.

    1. Yes. The final paragraph of the OP is ingenious and persuasive, but on reflection I agree with Alex. Beggs was under a professional obligation to defend his client by the best & strongest means – not necessarily the most distressing & most disruptive means. It’s not clear to me that the ‘drunken fans’ argument was a good one to use even in partisan terms – it was certainly a good spoiling tactic, inasmuch as it upset the victims’ families and wasted a lot of time, but it was never likely to have any effect on the verdict. Running down the clock by insulting the dead and hashing old and discredited stories – I think I’d expect better from a ‘barrister of the year’ candidate.

      1. I agree entirely with Alex and Phil – advance your case fearlessly by all means – but having to have your client apologise for your antics (as with Deepcut yesterday, where Mr Beggs took a similar approach to his cross examination as he did at Hillsborough) is not exactly fighting their corner. There are ethical boundaries for all us. Mr Beggs seems to think they don’t apply to him and is thereby doing a disservice to his own clients and the interests of justice.

  3. I’m astonished to learn that anyone thought that the fans who were crushed had been drunk. I’d assumed that the drunkenness had been alleged of the people who exerted the pressure on the standing fans.

    Who suggested that the victims had been drunk?

    1. You almost stole my thunder! From what I can gather, it was those fans without tickets,pushing from the back,that were drunk. As I understood it,the local pubs were drunk dry,yet there is no mention of this.
      It’s disheartening to hear all these people going on ,year after year,about this tragedy,yet there have been other such tragedies ,where many people have died and yet ,there appears to be a settled will, Bradford football fire,for example.

      1. Its disheartening that you cannot seem grasp the simple fact that these people were killed and it has taken until now for the truth to be accepted. Perhaps if a relative of your’s died you would just say “oh well”, even if the true circumstances were covered up and you were even blamed for the death yourself, as in this case. Most people would seek answers. I cannot imagine how that inclination is beyond your understanding.

    2. The pathologist ordered that all the victims, including children, be tested for blood alcohol levels on the night of the disaster. These were subsequently published in the newspaper. Most of the victims had little or no alcohol in their blood. The reason there was a crush was failure to manage the crowd, not because anyone (victims or others) was drunk. This has been forensically established time and time again – see Taylor report, Independent Panel report and second inquest verdict.

  4. If it’s claimed that none of the fans were drunk I simply observe that it must have been very different from the football matches I attended when younger. It is, in a word, implausible.

  5. It is unquestionably the case that Mr. Beggs is an accomplished advocate and this was a legendary case ever before the inquest started. The process was a blank sheet and it meant that no matter was had been established at the Taylor inquiry or the (ultimately endorsed Hillsborough Independent Panel) there was an opportunity to recycle the old and incendiary allegations about misconduct and drunkenness. The likely scenario was that at enormous public expense in Beggs (and others) fees the jury would find those arguments unworthy. It may have been his ‘instructions’ but hardly ‘proper’ in terms of respectable strategy and whilst the families cannot be exactly impartial (having been let down by authority figures and legal process previously ) they have seen the inquest from end to end. They do not seem to be critical of any other individual lawyer. The irony is that it was a so called ‘police lawyer’ that skillfully eased Mr. Duckenfield from a position of resistance of reality to sudden resigned admission.

    But it quite right that a spirited lawyer acts for those facing the music. But there is room for a sensitive approach to a difficult case

    I doubt Mr. Beggs will wear the crown this year.

  6. That’s all fair enough. However, mr beggs has again pursued a line of questioning in the deepcut inquest which did not advance his case in any way – he was stopped by the tribunal and his client has apologised. Yes, he must fight for his clients (inavariably powerful parties against weaker ones) but to ask questions which do not advance his case and cause distress to witnesses is simply hubris. He seems to believe his own reviews but has no humanity or ethical compass. Defending these antics without remembering that they are justifiable only if they advance your client’s case is misguided in the extreme. Frankly Beggs is a disgrace to our profession.

  7. LJ Taylor had through his inquiry placed the blame for the deaths that occurred at Hillsborough on an incompetent Police operation. John Beggs QC, through his strategy sought to overturn and undermine the conclusion of that inquiry and the Hillsborough Independent Panel inquiry thereby deliberately extending the length of the inquest, enlarging his taxpayer funded fees and the suffering of the families. Day after day the families had to listen to his monotonous drone about drunken fans or fans “with drink” a she strangely described it.
    The jury saw through it – but Beggs left so much richer at the end of the inquest with his taxpayer funded bundle. He loves representing the powerful against the weak.

    He is a Barrister that stands behind the “cab principle” as an excuse, that he has to do the best for his client. However his behaviour at the Hillsborough Inquest shows he has no moral compass, and discredited the profession in my view.

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