Posted Saturday, December 23, 2000

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London, Saturday, December 23, 2000

Lord Justice Sedley

A Website Correspondent writes: Who is Lord Justice Sedley, who has after due deliberation decided to refuse Mr Irving permission to appeal against Mr Justice Gray's perverse judgment in the libel action against Penguin Books and Lipstadt?

ACCORDING to Waterlow's "Solicitors's and Barristers' Directory" (1991) Stephen J. Sedley QC obtained a Cambridge BA (Hons) and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in November 1964. He became a QC in 1983. He is or was a member of the Cloisters Chambers [address: 2nd Floor, 1 Pump Court, Temple, London, EC4Y 7AA] specialising in Personal Injury; Landlord & Tenant; Defamation; Tribunals & Inquiries; Employment; Planning/Local Government; and Employment.

His chambers are described as "a progressive and expanding set of Chambers fully equipped to handle the demands of modern practice. Founded in 1954 by D.N. Pritt QC." Their specialisations include Administrative/ Public Law/Local Government; Commercial/Company Law; Criminal Law/Fraud; General Common Law; Industrial/Employment/Safety Law; Civil Liberties; International/EEC/Commonwealth Law."

  • On Civil Liberties: "Cloisters undertakes a wide variety of civil liberties work, and in particular discrimination (sex and race), prisoners' rights and immigration."
  • On International/EEC/Commonwealth: "A number of members of Cloisters are [sic] admitted to the Bar of other common law jurisdications including the US State and Federal Bars. We offer advice in all aspects of EEC work and have members who are fluent in a variety of languages and have experience in working in other EEC countries and at the EEC Commission."

A significant number of the barristers listed are evidently Jewish.

D N Pritt QC, the founder of this firm, was one of Britain's most notorious Communists. He was, in fact, a clandestine leader of the Communist Party. He set up these chambers in order to be of service to the CP and its fellow travellers. Head of chambers in 1991 was David Turner-Samuels QC (called to the Bar in May 1939) with the famous J F F Platts-Mills QC (called in Jan 1932) as his deputy. Sedley is listed as their No. 3. An article some ten years ago referred to the extreme left wing characters who populated the Cloisters chambers. It may have mentioned Sedley by name, it certainly referred to the well known Communist Party barrister William "Bill" Birtles, who often devilled for Sedley in political cases. Among the other QCs in these chambers are Alan Newman, Elisabeth Lawson, and Stephen Solley; junior counsel include Lawrence Kershan, David Altaras, Roger Offenbach, Philip Engelman, Jacques Agazy, Edward Quist-Arcton, Antony White, Michael Topolski and Paul Epstein.

Sedley's "Past" and Politics

What is known, if anything, of this judge's politics? Is it another "Hoffmann" case -- (Lord Justice Hoffmann was the judge who did not abstain from voting in the Lords against General Pinochet, although a past director of Amnesty International, one of the petitioners in the action)? Or, as seems equally possible, a leftist judge acting on his own religious instincts and conscience as much as on the dictates of the law?

Stephen Sedley first really came to the public attention in 1974 as a barrister during the proceedings of Lord Justice Scarman's Public Judicial Inquiry into the violent communist disturbances at Red Lion Square which led to one fatality. Scarman found that the International Marxist Group had made a "vicious, violent and unprovoked attack on the Police" who were guarding Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, to try and prevent access to the hall by the National Front who had booked it for a meeting to protest against the Labour Government's decision to grant an amnesty to illegal immigrants. [See Scarman's report, The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, Cmd 5919, HMSO, February 1975.]

Martin Webster, the no less well-known organiser of the NF protest march to the hall (which was described by Scarman as "orderly and responsive to Police directions") was called to give evidence to the Inquiry. Joint counsel for the International Marxist Group were none other than Stephen Sedley and Bill Birtles. In his cross-examination of Webster Sedley began shouting provocative allegations in such an abusive manner that he was reprimanded by Lord Justice Scarman.

Witnesses remember Sedley's face as being ashen and contorted with hatred and rage. Rather like Richard Rampton QC in the Lipstadt case, he had clearly identified with the cause of his clients, and did not conduct himself as a cool professional. Scarman was manifestly shocked by his performance, as the record taken by the court reporters will undoubtedly show.

Derisory damages

As fate would have it, the paths of Webster and Sedley crossed again again in 1982. Webster was defending himself as Litigant in Person against a Libel action brought by the South African-born Peter Hain, then co-leader of the Anti Nazi League (ANAL) and now (2000) a Foreign Office Minister. The ANAL had been formed as a joint initiative by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Socialist Workers Party.

Under pressure from police authorities and the Establishment, the Board of Deputies of British Jews withdrew from this open alliance once the increasingly violent ANAL was up and running, giving as their reasons (a) that the Socialist Workers Party (Founder: Tony Cliff, real name on Israeli passport Ygael Gluckstein) broke an agreement not to bypass the Board and make direct approaches for funds to wealthy members of the Jewish community who had hitherto exclusively funded the Board's activities, and (b) that ANAL was anti-Israel and anti-Zionist.

Webster had referred disparagingly to Hain in his October 1978 booklet "Lifting The Lid Off the Anti Nazi League".

Hain sued Webster for libel, retaining a Jewish QC, Turner-Samuels (see above), to represent him, with Birtles as his Junior. Sedley was often seen in Court assisting this team. After a week's trial, the jury awarded Hain the derisory sum of £5 damages -- paid by an ex-serviceman in the public gallery -- and the Judge made a costs Order in favour of Hain that was so restricted that it would have been uneconomic for him to get his alleged £20,000 lawyers bill taxed, let alone served on the defendant.

In the view of some observers the listing of Sedley LJ to hear the Lipstadt libel action appeal was a crude blow of fate.

Stephen Sedley is a judge of the Court of Appeal. His 1998 Hamlyn Lectures have been published as Freedom, Law and Justice. For a different perspective on His Lordship, see his witty article in the London Review of Books, Vol 21, No 22, November 11, 1999, entitled: "Farewell to Judges' Lodgings."

Related items on this website:

Newspaper article: "Preacher has Right to be Heard, however Irritating"
Lord Justice Sedley refuses Mr Irving permission to appeal (Dec 18, 2000)
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