In memoriam

Lord Lloyd-Jones JSC remembers Sir John and Sophie Laws. Sir John Laws was president of the Bar European Group from 1994 to 2018. Lord Lloyd-Jones, the president of the Bar European Group, remembers him for his learning and sense of fun.

Sir John and Lady Laws in Oxford. The Radcliffe Camera is seen behind, right. (Photo courtesy of the family)

John and Sophie Laws occupy a very special place in the history of the Bar European Group. John became President of the BEG in 1994, in succession to Lord Templeman, at a time when there was a huge increase of interest in European law and when practice at the Bar in that field was rapidly expanding. The fortunes of the Group were definitely rising and it was establishing itself as an important Specialist Bar Association. Throughout the quarter century of John’s Presidency, John and Sophie were a constant source of inspiration to the BEG and its success was, in large measure, due to their support. John’s distinction as a judge lent lustre to the BEG’s activities and this was matched by the warmth and grace Sophie showed in her involvement in the Group’s increasingly ambitious annual conferences. John and Sophie came to be held in enormous admiration and affection by the membership. Their unique contributions made them irreplaceable and their deaths leave a gap at the heart of the organisation.

John was always very modest about his knowledge of European law and often observed that he came away from BEG conferences realising how little he knew about the subject. In fact, this was far from the truth. Not only had John been the First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law) at a time when European law was an increasingly important feature of our domestic law and legal practice, but he was one of the most outstanding constitutional lawyers of his generation. From this perspective he possessed a profound understanding of the shifting and developing relationship between domestic law in this jurisdiction and the law of what was to become the European Union. As European law expanded into many new areas and became more specialised, he revelled in the expert papers delivered at BEG conferences and the opportunity to explore newly emerging fields. More generally, John had a breadth of vision of the law and its development which made him a truly great judge. It is hardly surprising that the BEG was so proud to have him as its President.

Sophie and John first met when they were both students at Oxford. John took a first in Mods and Greats. Sophie took a first in Theology and went on to have a distinguished academic career as a theologian and historian as a lecturer in theology at King’s College London. She later became Academic Dean and an Honorary Fellow of Regent’s University. Her particular fields of interest included Christianity under the Romans and the history of women in Byzantium. Sophie’s learning was very lightly worn but her knowledge, enthusiasm and ease of communication were much appreciated by her companions on sightseeing tours during BEG conferences all around Europe. It was probably just as well that official tour guides did not realise what a scholar they had in their group. Just occasionally, a particularly perceptive question might have alerted them to the fact that this lady really did know what she was talking about. I have a particularly happy memory of a large group of BEG children (and quite a few adults) listening spellbound to Sophie in the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes as she explained to them about the deliberate mistakes placed in the mosaic floors.

In every year of John’s 25-year Presidency of BEG, without exception, John and Sophie led the annual conferences, held each year in a different European location. While the lawyers were engaged with the intricacies and mysteries of EU law, Sophie and the accompanying persons would see the sights. BEG conferences rapidly became family occasions. Although many of those attending the conferences were well known to each other, the atmosphere was always very inclusive and newcomers were always made very welcome. The creation of scholarships, funded by the generosity of various sets of chambers, to enable pupils to attend the annual conferences was an innovation which John and Sophie wholeheartedly supported. They were always very warm in the welcome they extended to the scholars who, in turn, added a new dimension to the conferences and who, in later years, themselves proved loyal members of the BEG. It is particularly fitting that the scholarships are to be renamed in memory of John and Sophie.

A running joke throughout John’s Presidency was the contribution made each year to John’s speech at the annual conference dinner by “my historical researcher” whose identity was never officially disclosed but which was not too difficult to guess. While some of these glorious speeches survive, others, sadly, have been lost. These speeches give some idea of the pleasure John and Sophie took in BEG conferences and the sense of fun in which we all shared. The very first was delivered in Prague in 1994 when the historical researcher had delved into the links between England and Bohemia. We were told about the wool trade, about Anne of Bohemia the consort of Richard II and about the relationship between John Wycliffe and Jan Huss. We were told about the Winter Queen and, if I recall correctly, John also referred to the Munich crisis and the fate of Czechoslovakia. I certainly recall a reference to Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” being shipwrecked on the seacoast of Bohemia. “Geography”, John observed, “was not that strong at Stratford Grammar School”.

In the years that followed, a new tradition was rapidly established. Every year the conference would wait eagerly for John to disclose the result of the work of “my historical researcher” and the mere reference would immediately raise a cheer. In Kracow in 1998 we dined at the Wierzynek Restaurant and we were regaled with an account of the European Kings who had dined there with Casimir the Great in 1364. In Toledo in 2009 we were told that William Marshall, whose effigy lies in the Temple Church, had a sword of Toledo steel. In Cyprus in 2005 we learned how Richard the Lionheart was en route for the Third Crusade when a ship carrying his mother, sister, and prospective bride Berengaria of Navarre and the great seal of England ran aground off Cyprus. Richard was able to rescue them from the clutches of Byzantine Prince Isaac Komnenos, and Richard and Berengaria were married in the chapel of St George at Limassol where she was crowned Queen of the England she would never see. John, a great film buff, was able to contrast this version of events with that in the Cecil B de Mille movie of 1935 starring Henry Wilcoxon and Loretta Young.

The trick, as John’s historical researcher once confided to me, was to avoid the obvious. As a result, in Rome in 2007 we were told not about the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome but about the 220th anniversary of Gibbon’s completion of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. In Athens in 2011, the historical researcher dealt not with Pericles or Solon but with the transport ship Hydra which exactly 200 years before had sailed from Piraeus carrying crates containing the second instalment of Lord Elgin’s collection of classical sculptures, including the Parthenon frieze, and, up above, George Gordon, Lord Byron, aged 23, returning from his gap year. Similarly, in Sorrento in 2014 we were told not about the fate of Pompeii but about His Majesty’s Ship Vanguard which on 21 December 1798 sailed out of the Bay of Naples carrying an extraordinary collection of passengers, including Rear Admiral Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe, Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to the Court of the Two Sicilies, and Lady Hamilton, and King Ferdinand IV and Queen Maria Carolina, fleeing from Napoleon’s army. The historical researcher considered it just possible that the passengers also included the Cardinal Bishop of Frascati, Henry Benedict Stuart, the younger brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the last of the Stuart line. These speeches were a delight, wonderful confections of learning and fun.

John and Sophie adored Greece, where they had built a holiday home on the island of Andros, overlooking the Aegean Sea. During these years the BEG often found itself in Greece – in Rhodes, in Athens and in Crete. In 2008 when the annual conference was held in Istanbul, John was clearly in his element. He seemed to consider the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans a personal blow. The annual dinner that year was held on a terrace overlooking the domes and minarets of the city. John, to the light of a lantern, began his speech with these words:

“Look at the moon tonight, 25th May 2008: it is waning over Istanbul. The moon was  waning over Constantinople on the night of 28th May 1453 (555 years ago). The next  day the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos led a last sally through the Romanos Gate.  He threw off his imperial regalia and fought to the death among his troops. His body  was never found.”

This was perhaps the finest and certainly the most moving of the speeches composed by John with the assistance of his historical researcher.

In July 2016 John retired from the Court of Appeal where he had sat since 1999, but he remained President of the BEG. In the following October he took up the Arthur Goodhart Chair of Legal Science at the University of Cambridge. John and Sophie soon established themselves in Goodhart Lodge in Trumpington Road and John threw himself with vigour into his teaching duties. Sadly, during that year Sophie was diagnosed with a serious illness. The last BEG conference which they attended was in Chania, Crete in May 2017. Despite Sophie’s illness they welcomed the participants and threw a drinks party for the scholars. Sophie was not well enough to attend the dinner at which we heard the historical researcher’s final contribution. A few weeks later Sophie passed away at Goodhart Lodge. John’s health declined thereafter but he continued to write and his final work, “The Constitutional Balance” will be published in 2021. John fell victim to the Covid virus at Easter 2020.

The immense sadness felt within the BEG at losing two such dear friends is tempered by the joy they brought us. The predominant memory of everyone who participated in these conferences is a very happy one – of the inspirational part played by John and Sophie over so many years. How fortunate is the BEG and how fortunate are we to have enjoyed their company and their friendship.

Sir John Laws, 1945-2020.

See also ‘In their own words’.

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