Updated: Sep 20
Due to the sensitive nature of much of his work, details of names are kept to a minimum.
So, a career in law? Always fascinating, surely, not least because it features pretty centrally in so much of our media reflections on ourselves. Always a popular choice with the students, it is particularly pleasing to pass on lived experience and advice from past students to aspiring new blood. Today we have a first: some strapping wisdom from inside our complex legal system, from a highly experienced QC, part-time judge and hugely respected barrister working at the highest levels within the world of human rights. As ever, be prepared to be impressed.
Meeting Matt after all these years is a delight. Forthright and charismatic, it is still possible to see the young man who was always passionately committed to the truth behind a self-effacing modesty, ready to recommend integrity and human empathy rather than intellectual brilliance or ‘connections’ as the foundation of a career at the Bar. It’s a good story which challenges a lot of prejudices and inspires fresh confidence in a legal profession that takes plenty of battering, in both the real and the media versions that continue to fascinate us.
So, some context. Matt came to Hurtwood, by default and with considerable apprehension, when his parents had to move to Europe. Having no previous experience of boarding, and certainly not beguiled by theatre or the creative arts, it was ‘sheer luck,’ he tells me, that ‘it was a soft landing,’ because what he found were ‘amazing inspirational teachers’ and an open and accepting atmosphere that accommodated and soon fanned his strong viewpoints and interests. The redoubtable Alison Morton oversaw him in French, and he remembers with affection how she brought invaluable discipline and order into his scholastic world in a way that was both ‘terrifying and comforting.’ Sadly, both A-level Politics and Law, his other two subjects, are no longer taught at Hurtwood. Both, however, were totally absorbing, he tells me, recalling with energy the excitement of ideas, arguments and debate built into the way they were taught. Angela Tomlinson and Brian Lewis were ‘fantastic’, making the subject exciting and challenging. The real power for him, however, lay in the Law classes: it was Adrian Martin, with his quiet integrity and inspirational teaching, as well as his steady conviction that Matt’s potential future lay ‘at the Bar’ and ‘not in politics’, who lit a small flame that would persist, and indeed shape the course of his whole future. Given that this later choice would be as a barrister, I ask about Theatre and performance: this had no appeal for Matt at that time, but he recalls noticing the fascinating trade-off that had drawn in many of his friends and contemporaries to the school. Effectively, he could see that the lure of the performing arts was traded against commitment to more traditional subjects, with all the sheer hard work that implied. Even then he could see that this was a system that cajoled the best out of students, even as they had amazing creative fun.
He shares a strong memory of fascinating encounters with Mike Friend, at that time the charismatic and influential, if intimidating, head of Theatre Studies. Whilst neither teaching nor tutoring him, he took time to argue politics with Matt, as well as challenging him ‘to the most stressful games of chess I have ever played’. He cannot remember who won their sustained clashes, so modestly assumes that it was Mike which is possibly the case. I’m pretty sure, however, that Mike, like others since, was drawn to the intellectual challenge of this already singular student. I recall Matt, decades ago, making an impression in the theatre ‘debating’ something controversial and unusually anti-Establishment, while twisting a strand of his rather long student hair. The power of the moment with its touching suggestion of nervousness and commitment has stayed with me. He laughs and tells me that he is teased to this day when a similar gesture (on shorter hair, of course) in court suggests that he is working his ideas particularly hard. It also leads on to how much his debating skills were honed over the two years at Hurtwood by Jaqueline, often forcing him to work around ideas that challenged his own prejudices in tough ways. When it came to university, however, Matt confesses to poor decision-making over his applications. He missed both Oxford, and LSE, his real aim, and ‘settled finally for UCL,’ and a degree in philosophy and economics. We both chuckle that this university should have seemed any kind of ‘second best’ compromise; however, it was soon apparent that it was the course that was wrong, not the university. Luckily, having clearly impressed the admissions tutor he was offered a rather painless transfer to law. See what I mean about being noticed by the right people? He was off, he had found his tribe; so much so that at the end of his graduate studies he stood successfully for the role of President of the Students’ Union. It was a great year, and he jokes that he could have stayed for life; it proved instead an invaluable hiatus that allowed him to consolidate his choices. The next step seemed natural: Bar school awaited. With an interesting debating scholarship rapidly completed, he was up and running.
So now to chambers and the clearly complex process and implications involved at this stage. Matt enlarges on the internal politics that surrounds both the reputations and standing of different chambers: this was complex, crucial and sometimes painful. Suffice it to say that he ended up rather serendipitously not where he imagined his future to be: he found himself in a chambers renowned for human rights, certainly, but often representing state institutions and, at the time, amongst a rather intimidating sea of privilege, including ‘loads of old Etonians and at least three baronets’. I imagine that they saw the integrity, passion and ability that is Matt, and suspect that he was the only one who was surprised. It was straight to business, of course, and he was thrilled to get an early day in court defending a very serious charge concerning use of a firearm. He describes this as ‘an incredible stroke of luck,’ having the chance to present his defence (which pinpointed bullying and vulnerability at its heart) to a jury. The rather confused defendant was acquitted, the judge called Matt back to enquire about his career status and subsequently made a personal call to his chambers to ‘recommend’ that he ‘be taken on for tenancy’. He was, and there he remains, involved in some of the most controversial and challenging cases of the last two decades. Subsequent instructions have seen Matt become a kind of ‘go to’ in relation to the use of firearms, and in particular, cases involving their use by the police. This serves as a key reminder about a career in law: that the assumption that one would be on ‘one side or another,’ of a clear moral divide is misleading and naïve. Matt describes it as ‘almost arrogant to think you could make that much of a difference.’ His job, like that of his colleagues, is to present and articulate the facts, to debate and argue to the best of his abilities, and let others decide the outcome. See what I mean about inspirational? His career moved on to cases following controversial police shootings, including that of Mark Duggan. Matt seems to have earned his spurs (and is clearly ready to use those spurs where needed) representing and ‘ensuring fairness’ with the representatives of law and order itself. Some seven years ago he became a part-time judge, which has been a revelation. ‘I absolutely love it,’ he tells me. Because? He can ‘be nice to everyone’, ensuring that due process is followed, that both sides do their proper job and are responsibly covering their corners: I am sure that he maintains the kind of calm impartial maturity that is the hallmark of law at its most serious and impressive level.
No wonder then that Matt has earned fans in the highest of places, including those who appear against him representing the families of the victims of police shootings. One of his opponents who has an unrivalled reputation for consistently challenging established prejudices and has done more than anyone to promote diversity within the legal system took time to encourage his career path, both personally and professionally, most particularly his appointment as Queen’s Counsel. As I said, Matt has clearly impressed in the right places. Meanwhile he continues to work on some of the key cases of recent years, including the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry, the London Bridge terrorist attacks, and currently Grenfell. He remains excited by the fact that his advice (he is too modest to call it expertise) has helped to shape areas of policy and has sometimes fed into national decisions. It is this passion for the truth, the human warmth and integrity that he exudes, that is so impressive.
So: time to wind this fascinating chat up, although I confess that I could continue all day. A quick round-up of key advice for any of our students thinking about a career in the law? It’s back to the ‘i-word’: ‘you must have integrity,’ he reiterates. You have to be able ‘to relate to others and recognise the importance of treating all people equally’. In academic terms he recommends choosing a ‘good degree (one you really like) at a good university’ and then heading into a conversion. His single most valuable preparative experience? Debating skills: being forced to think about ideas from different perspectives and ‘to think on your feet’. He is also hugely encouraging about the egalitarian nature of law applications today, making clear that there is afoot a real drive to create a broader, more representative footprint, which is reflected in his own chambers. Eton and Oxbridge and their like no longer dominate the application field, he tells me, and although there are still reactionary pockets (like the presence of a butler when he joined his chambers back in the day), there seems to be far more emphasis on creating colleagues who reflect the diversity of the wider world, who are not going to replicate the limitations of a largely white elite, not least because this has already been well represented. His roots, like his heart, clearly reach into a far more democratic spread of societal and cultural experience. Over two decades Matt has found time for helping with pupillage applications, work experience, advocacy training, pro bono work, and still shares a powerful belief in and for a fairer and more representative legal system from top to bottom.
It is hard not to share his enthusiasm and excitement for the work that he so clearly loves. At every stage of our catch-up there is a genuine sense of commitment to a more inclusive world, and an absolute belief that we are moving forward towards this. It is of course an unalloyed pleasure to be told that Hurtwood – and particularly Adrian who planted the idea – played a key role in making his choices possible. It has been an enormous privilege to celebrate Matt’s achievements and his inspirational and practical advice for a successful career at the Bar. Thanks for standing up for truth, keep up the good fight – and if I ever fall on the wrong side of the law, well, I sure know who I would call.