For lawyers, keeping true to their faith can be tricky. Hannah Clifton finds that for some, legal work is part of their spiritual calling and [below] talks to a judge at the sharp end

Many partners at City firm Taylor Wessing only became aware of the ordination of the firm’s head of human resources last month when he missed the annual partners’ conference to attend his ordination ceremony at Southwark Cathedral.

Jonathan Croucher, who was an employment partner at the firm before switching to the non-partner HR role last year, aims to combine his role as curate at the Anglican church of The Good Shepherd with St Peter in Lee, London, with his existing role at Taylor Wessing.

But as the furore over Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione – the former proposed European commissioner whose private religious views led to claims that he was the wrong person to have responsibility for promoting anti-discrimination – has proven, there are potential conflicts for those committed to their faith and also to another career.

For lawyers, it has been an issue for centuries. The Gazette’s own lawyer of the millennium, as voted for by readers, was Sir Thomas More, a deeply religious Roman Catholic. He was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor in 1532 when he refused to denounce papal supremacy and declare Henry VIII head of the Church of England. He was beheaded for high treason as a result.

Mr Croucher acknowledges that there are difficulties. He says: ‘I sometimes do have to implement things that my own ethics and sense of justice don’t like and I have to compromise as I am working in a profit-making business and have to be pragmatic.

‘I look at my role as to do as much good as I can – I can add a new perspective to any decision-making process, and while I may occasionally have to implement unpalatable decisions, I can try and do that in the best and most sensitive way possible.’

Croucher: difficultiesMr Croucher is remaining in his Taylor Wessing role as part of the commitment he made on ordination ‘to make a difference to the way people are treated and developed, and the culture of the firm’.

One high-profile lawyer with experience of dealing with the dual role is Mr Justice Hedley, president of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, who gave judgment in the Charlotte Wyatt case concerning whether doctors should continue to revive a terminally ill baby (see below).

Some Christian lawyers have felt inspired to join with like-minded lawyers in practice. The Association of Christian Law Firms comprises 34 firms in which all partners are committed Christians. Its chairman, James Worthington, a partner at Fairchild Dobbs in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, says this makes it easier for solicitors to practise their religion to the full. He suggests that many solicitors, practising faiths of all kinds, would actually prefer to be in firms in which partners share the same faith.

Muslims comprise the second largest religious group in the UK. Makbool Javaid, an employment partner at City firm DLA, says there are problems for Muslims in the profession.

He says: ‘Apart from moral and ethical dilemmas, the real problem is stereotyping from world events. We don’t have a positive image. There is a greater understanding now but there is still a great degree of prejudice borne out of a lack of understanding and awareness.’

Mr Javaid adds: ‘Image is important in the profession and the stereotypical assumption can be made that if a woman is wearing a Muslim headscarf, she is down-trodden and oppressed.’ He says that for men, being clean shaven is seen as ‘more open and professional’ than the orthodox Muslim beard. Muslims are also required to offer prayers five times a day.

Attending meetings and corporate entertainment can also present difficulties as orthodox Muslims should avoid alcohol and, if not related, should not be alone with or shake hands with someone of the opposite sex. Ifath Nawaz, chairwoman of the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML), welcomed the approach of Tony Blair to this custom. She recalls that the prime minister once simply stated to her that he did not know whether to shake hands with her or not.

Muslim Sharia law, dealt with by local imams, has its own rules for property, crime and wills. Sharia law also prohibits dealing with interest on money, so there are difficulties for Muslims in undertaking commercial work. The newly established Islamic Bank of Britain – the first Muslim Bank in this country – is interest free.

The AML is holding a series of conferences to assist solicitors with these issues and is keen to build bridges with the non-Muslim community. Ms Nawaz says: ‘Religion does not hold us back. It just enhances what we do. It’s not a question of saying we are Muslim and we want, we want. We are compromising and asking for compassion. We want to get on in, and with, society.’

Jewish people also have their own religious laws. There are four orthodox Beth Din, Jewish rabbinical law courts, in the UK. They hear commercial cases, applications for conversions and also Gets (Jewish divorces). Provisions for divorce are similarly contained in Muslim Sharia law. Not surprisingly, with religion and divorce interfacing in this way, the Law Society is planning a series of seminars to assist members in dealing with the impact of religious laws on divorce for clients.

Jewish solicitors can also be affected by the dress code and social interaction requirements of their faith. At central London firm Kanter Jules, the requirement for orthodox Jewish women to wear clothing that covers knees and elbows is extended to the non-Jewish receptionist so as not to offend orthodox Jewish clients. The receptionist is also happy to conform by not offering to shake hands with male Jewish orthodox clients.

Partner Paul Mendelsohn admits that having other Jewish partners puts him in a fortunate position. He can leave at a couple of hours’ notice to attend Jewish funerals – which Jewish law requires should take place within a few hours of death. He can also be at home by dusk on Fridays before the Sabbath begins and the firm has a kosher kitchen.

However, there are still problems within the profession. Robert Schon, a Jewish partner at City firm Simmons & Simmons, recently filed an employment tribunal claim alleging discrimination, which the firm said it will defend.

The Solicitors Anti-Discrimination Rules 2004 came into force on 1 September, extending the previous rules to include discrimination in employment on the basis of religion or belief in line with the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

However, in updating the rule, the Law Society Council decided to maintain the position of going further than the law on discrimination on the basis of religion (and sexual orientation). The rule prohibits it in relation to a solicitor’s ‘professional dealings with clients, staff, other solicitors, barristers and other persons’; the law only relates to employment, vocational training and partnerships.

Mr Javaid, who also sits on the Law Society’s employment law committee, advised the government on the regulations and says there are potential difficulties for employers with complying, as religion and belief are not defined.

He also suggests that firms requiring partners to be of a certain faith may now be in difficulty.

Most solicitors adopt a flexible approach. Aamir Khan, chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers, says: ‘Many Muslims brought up in this country chose to adopt the elements they feel comfortable with. Religion is personal and about how you communicate with God and making an issue out of it can cause difficulties.’

Marilyn Stowe, who is Jewish and head of the family unit at Leeds firm Grahame Stowe Bateson, adds: ‘There can be confusion between observance and what is in your heart. It’s a balance you have to exercise in a practical way. I believe you have to be flexible and act in accordance with your conscience.’

There is evidence of flexibility from City law firms. Taylor Wessing recently altered the date of its annual dinner from Friday to Thursday to make it easier for Jewish staff to attend. Allen & Overy is among those to provide halal and kosher food if requested, and Clifford Chance has a nondenominational prayer-room available, a step the Law Society has recently followed.

For some lawyers, their legal work is part of their spiritual calling. Mr Justice Hedley has made clear that he believes he was ‘called’ to serve in the legal profession. Rustam Dubash, a dispute resolution partner in the City office of Penningtons, is director of the World Zoroastrian Association, representing 7,000 Parsees in this country. He says one principle of Zoroaster is the spirit of service, defined as ‘good action in the cause of justice, education and charity’.

He says: ‘Working as a lawyer fulfils that role and I do not see it as conflicting with religion but living it. Serving humanity is serving God.’

The success of those of varying faiths in the profession is testimony to their flexibility and strong commitment. Greater understanding is needed, but it does seem that law and religion can be a good partnership.

Higher calling puts top judge’s Christian values on the spot

After Charlotte Wyatt, Mr Justice Hedley tells Hannah Clifton how he balances ethics and law

When Mr Justice Hedley recently faced the unenviable task of giving judgment in the heart-rending Charlotte Wyatt case, it was not only the circumstances of the case that drew media attention. The judge also found himself in the spotlight.

The Times devoted a feature to ‘The Christian Judge’ and there was some speculation as to whether his faith would lead him to be more sympathetic towards the views of Charlotte’s parents. To what extent does his spiritual life and legal work interact? The judge is candid about the influence of his Christian faith on his legal work and the reason for him working in the legal profession.

He admits that he ‘wrestled with’ being ordained, teaching or becoming a barrister but felt ‘pushed’ in the direction of the legal profession by his faith, believing that it was God’s will. Mr Justice Hedley now regards himself as ‘a full-time Christian worker within the law’, but says being a reader at the Anglican church of St Peter in Everton, Liverpool, where he regularly preaches, ‘keeps some of the other aspects alive’. He is also president of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship.

How does his faith influence his work on a daily basis? He says it gives an added responsibility as ‘Christians see themselves as working first for the Lord and therefore are first accountable to Him. Christians also see every human being as of infinite worth in their own right, though many others would share that view, and I think also recognise that human beings find wrong is easier than right, which is a useful defence in being cynical. [They] also recognise that no human being is ever without redemption, so no case is ever without hope.’ He accepts that many non-Christians would share some of these views but for him these are the ones ‘born of the faith that I have’.

But do such attitudes lead to Christians being more lenient in their approach? He says: ‘It might be either – Christians might have a greater understanding of why people do what they do and have inculcated into them the biblical concept of loving mercy and so forth. On the other hand, being a Christian may make one tougher than many humanistic liberals, in that we ascribe to people a personal responsibility for actions that humanistic liberals might attribute to background or genetic failings or whatever. So I think it may cut either way.’ He says to take away personal responsibility is ‘to dehumanise people even though their culpability might be variable’.

His work in the family division involves making difficult and painful decisions. How does he balance the law of God, to whom he says he is ‘first accountable’, with secular laws? What would happen should there be a conflict between the two? He takes a pragmatic approach.

‘If God calls me to serve in a secular legal system then I am going to operate a secular legal system which, by definition, is almost invariably dealing with the less than ideal, is almost invariably dealing with a falling short of standards, almost invariably involved in the management of things that have gone wrong, not exclusively, but almost always. [This means] the best choice – and this is particularly true in child cases – is very rarely available and you are always making the best of what there is and that is where you start from.

‘I have been pushed into the position of sanctioning arrangements I would not want to sanction but I have because they were the best option available to that child at the time.’

The hardest cases must be those which involve the life or death of a child. The judge says: ‘The law is quite clear – the question is what is in the child’s best interests and that is the profoundly subjective one where all the pressures bear in on you. You have to balance sanctity of life and the right to personal dignity.’

Does he ask himself what is the will of God in such cases? ‘I’m saying, given my whole mind-set, “what do I think is in this child’s best interests?”, so inevitably faith will influence that decision as it will influence any other discretionary decision that you might make. But there will be endless non-Christians who would come to exactly the same view I did without God featuring in it at all.’

He deals robustly with the question of whether Christians should involve themselves in divorce work as the Church is opposed to divorce. ‘If Christians aren’t where people are hurting, then there is something that is seriously wrong,’ he explains. ‘There is no conflict between maintaining God’s standards and managing the consequences of failure.’

He similarly discounts the contention that as criminal lawyers, Christians risk defending the guilty or prosecuting the innocent. He says that everyone is entitled to representation and it is the role of the court to adjudicate.

Mr Justice Hedley is keen not to overplay the distinctiveness of being a Christian in the law. He agrees that a Christian and a humanist judge would reach the same conclusion in the vast majority of cases. He says that in many cases the result is dictated by a narrow range of choices and a judge must choose one even if he disapproves of them all. He adds that he does not think there are cases in which all Christian judges would decide in one way and not another.

Vocation is something the judge feels strongly about. He is anxious that Christians within the law have a real understanding of being called. He says: ‘Unless you have actually grasped that God is deeply bothered about issues that the law deals with and that he wants people within it, you are not going to grasp either a sense of calling or that this is full-time ministry… It’s a question of vocation. The profession is an integral part of full-time Christian ministry and not an add-on.’

Hannah Clifton is a freelance journalist