The Rt. Hon. Sir John Laws, Kt.   10th May 1945 – 5th April 2020

The Rt. Hon. Sir John Laws, Kt. 10th May 1945 – 5th April 2020


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It is with profound sadness that we share the news of the untimely death of Sir John Laws yesterday.

He was a pillar of these chambers from 1969 until 1992 when he was appointed to the High Court as a judge of the Queen’s Bench Division.  He was promoted to the Court of Appeal, and appointed to the Privy Council in 1998.  In 2016, Sir John took early retirement from judicial life to take on an academic role as the Arthur Goodhart Visiting Professor of Legal Science at the University of Cambridge.  He was an Honorary Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge, and of Exeter College Oxford where he was an undergraduate, taking a first in Greats. He was a Judicial Visitor at University College London, and, in 2010, a distinguished Treasurer of the Inner Temple.

After pupillage in these chambers with Bill (later Sir William) McPherson, Sir John started in practice as a generalist, at the common law bar, fighting a wide variety of criminal and civil cases. His more public profile began when he was appointed First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law), known as the Treasury Devil, at the young age of 38.  He followed another popular and much respected member of these chambers into the role – Simon Brown (Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood) – in itself not an easy act to follow.  Sir John represented the Government in almost all the major public law cases of the day. This included a large number of exceptionally challenging  matters both here and abroad, including the Spycatcher trial in Australia, the “Death on the Rock” Inquest into the SAS killing of three IRA operatives in Gibraltar, and numerous other seminal domestic cases in the then rapidly developing area of public law.

From his time at the Bar, and from his judgments and academic writings, it is widely accepted that Sir John was one of the finest lawyers of his generation, particularly in the field of Constitutional and Administrative law. He was one of the founders and the President of the Administrative Law Bar Association, for whom he designed their distinctive letterhead of a crown, hooked upon the sword of justice. He was also a President (from 1994 to 2018) of the Bar European Group. Until a few weeks before his death, Sir John was still very actively intellectually engaged, and was near publication of a collection of his lectures, focussing on an argument he had developed over the years, that in our democratic society, it is the constitution and not Parliament that is sovereign. Many friends and colleagues regret that Sir John did not take a seat in the Supreme Court – as Lord Brown put it in his recent book Playing off the Roof & Other Stories – “One of the finest jurists never to reach the final court of appeal”.

Sir John’s contributions, both judicial and academic, to public law jurisprudence are matters of public record. We will remember him even more for his huge kindness, and generosity of spirit, for his life-long love of Greece and for his consummate love of life. He was gregarious and great company. The door to his room in our chambers was never closed – whether the visitor was the humblest member of staff or the head of chambers.  He was beloved as a pupil-master for his profound personal warmth, his erudition, his economy with unnecessary pupillage formality – and his liberality with the whisky bottle after work. He was renowned equally in the Government Legal Service (then TSol) and in Whitehall for his short but brilliant high-level consultations of which he would achieve about 5 or 6 after the working day in court.

He was also a most devoted family man, devastated by the sudden and premature death in 2017 of his beloved wife, Sophie, herself a formidable theological scholar and equally very much loved in these chambers. He leaves a daughter, son-in-law, and 2 grandchildren all of whom were the apples of his eye.

He is an enormous loss: to learning, to the law and to our lives.

We are conscious the loss is not only ours, and chambers intends to celebrate Sir John’s life in a number of ways, when public life is back to normal.

In addition to our tribute, we thought that friends and colleagues may wish to read Edwin Glasgow CBE QC’s speech on behalf of the Bar at the Valedictory for John’s retirement from the Court of Appeal in 2016 here.

If you would like to send a message of condolence, the email address is sirjohnlawstributes@39essex.com


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