Solicitor Benedict Birnberg, 'one of the greatest lawyers of his generation', has died aged 93 after a short illness, his family has announced.
As the founder and principal of BM Birnberg & Co, established in 1962, he led a firm that used the law to champion civil liberties, help clients assert their rights on housing and welfare, and protect victims of domestic violence. It also represented high-profile criminal defendants and supported campaigns from the anti-Apartheid movement to efforts to prevent the closure of services at Guys Hospital, then local to the firm’s offices on Borough High Street, London.
Birnberg began his civil liberties work with CND and represented the actors union Equity in its internal battles over the boycott of Apartheid-era South Africa. Members of the ANC in exile were frequent visitors to the office. Representing the Albany Trust, he fought for gay rights at a point when rights campaigns were at an early stage in their development.
The firm was a crucible that forged radical lawyers acting for civil rights clients. Paul Boateng, Imran Khan KC and Gareth Peirce trained at the firm. After his retirement in 1999, the firm continued as Birnberg Peirce, with Peirce as senior partner.
Boateng, a partner at the firm before entering politics, said: ‘His skilled advocacy was put at the disposal of those who were all too often marginalised and unheard. Rightly admired and by his opponents feared also he was a constant source of inspiration to many of us. He was simply the best example of what a truly radical lawyer should be.’
Ben Birnberg was a true champion of civil liberties and one of the greatest lawyers of his generation, Paul Boateng writes.
Fearless, kind, generous and always understated he championed the cause of racial justice, workers, women’s and gay rights long before it was safe let alone fashionable to do so. A lawyer in the Mangrove trials, for David Hockney and the Anti-Apartheid movement, he was always there in the thick of the struggle to win gains for and consolidate a range of progressive causes.
I will never forget my first encounter with him having read of his work and seen it reported on TV. I wrote, received an immediate and encouraging reply, went to his office and got offered articles. I was one of the very few if not the only black articled clerk in London at that time. He didn’t just talk the talk he walked the walk when it came to equal opportunities.
I and successive generations of Black and Asian solicitors owe him. He interviewed me in an office behind piles of files, mostly active, to which he always gave priority, and some long awaiting billing. His partners of whom I eventually became one despaired of his complete disregard for the firm’s profit and sustainability. The cause always came first with Ben.
Behind the dishevelled, crumpled and vaguely other worldly manner I soon learnt was a keen intellect and a will of steel. His skilled advocacy was put at the disposal of those who were all too often marginalised and unheard. Rightly admired, and by his opponents feared also, he was a constant source of inspiration to many of us. He was simply the best example of what a truly radical lawyer should be. A mighty tree has fallen as they say in Africa for whose total liberation he was a lifelong champion. Hamba Kahle Ben! Go well!
Paul Boateng is Labour member of the House of Lords and a former partner at BM Birnberg & Co
We campaigned together for a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, Simon Hughes writes.
Ben Birnberg was one of the great British civil liberties lawyers of my adult life, whom I had the privilege to come to know well, work with often and respect hugely. When as a young lawyer, I became MP for Bermondsey and north Southwark in 1983, I was proud also to become the MP for the campaigning and radical Birnberg solicitors in Borough High Street. I regularly referred constituents and others to Ben’s firm and worked on several of the legal campaigns for which Birnberg’s became famous - such as to secure the posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley. I also came to know Ben really well when he offered large amounts of time, support, advice and wisdom to local and national campaigns which were not principally legal - such as the very successful local and national fight to ‘Save Guy’s Hospital’ from closure and to protect and save Borough Market.
Ben was a man of almost limitless determination, energy and resolve and used his intellect, skill and unwavering commitment to justice successfully to challenge established British views throughout his long life. To his family, I add my warmest appreciation for all Ben did for so many for so long. Long may his legacy continue through the lives of all the civil liberty lawyers and others whom he inspired, led and taught so well.
Simon Hughes was Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and North Southwark 1983-2015, and UK minister of state for justice and civil liberties 2013-2015
He was ‘fearless and quietly ferocious’, writes Gareth Peirce
Working with Ben was working in comforting proximity to an extraordinary lawyer, always supportive, kind and generous and most extraordinarily as well, unconditionally trusting. If a case was lost, that an unlimited commitment to undo the wrong should continue after the final outcome in the courts, would be a decision for his colleagues themselves and not needing of discussion.
There were important landmark legal decisions long before the Human Rights Act, which grew out of simple propositions grounded in the common law. Ben was sure that political rightness should be accommodated within the law and if there were error, the understanding of the law should be recalibrated to acknowledge its inappropriate interpretations.
As an advocate Ben was idiosyncratic and effective; his advocacy was resourced by erudition but it was underpinned too by hard preparation. His most treasured weapon nevertheless was most often in letters to the Times – by which he could the more easily publicly and at top speed, channel his challenges – one to the castigation by a court of his trainee because she had worn to court trousers rather than a skirt; another to a magistrate’s direction that Ben’s Rastafarian colleague, whose dreadlocks were respectfully covered, could not in consequence “be seen” by the court as an advocate.
Ben’s twin track focus, in his legal work and thereafter was on solutions and for those the necessity of freedom of expression; both worth working for, for life. He joined in the founding of the Butler Trust for prisoners; he chaired the National Council for Civil Liberties. He fought tooth and nail for public funding for defendants. He was fearless and quietly ferocious.
Gareth Peirce is senior partner of Birnberg Peirce
Working for Ben gave me an enthusiasm that lasts to this day, writes Jeni Styring
I worked for Ben and did my articles there after getting my degree from the LSE. As an articled clerk I worked on the Mangrove trial and also the Angry Brigade trial, then the longest trial ever.
It was a brilliant training and Ben was so committed but also willing to look at how best to get the right results for his clients.
I am still working and believe I got my enthusiasm from that period.
Jeni Styring is a consultant solicitor at Ewings & Co
If you have memories of Benedict Birnberg or a tribute to share, please email Gazette features editor Eduardo Reyes: firstname.lastname@example.org.