Veteran London solicitor who believed the law should given justice to everyman
Perhaps one reason for the success of the solicitor Lord Mishcon, who has died aged 90, was his sense that the law should be there for everybody. He had an old-fashioned sense of the responsibilities of being a lawyer in the days before law practices became commercial exercises. Masterful with private clients, he was a man who would extricate them from whatever problem they had dug for themselves. He did not preach to them and he had an ability to set an agenda.
A Labour member for Lambeth of the Greater London council (GLC) from 1964 to 1967 – and chairman of its general purposes committee – Victor Mishcon was created a life peer in 1978 during James Callaghan’s administration. He was effectively shadow chancellor (1983-92) when he was opposition spokesman on legal affairs in the Lords.
Later, unlike many lawyer MPs and peers, he was not in fear of New Labour’s Lord Irvine. His position served the Law Society well, and Mishcon acted as an intermediary during the 1999 debates on the access to justice bill, which was seen as severely restricting the availability of legal aid, of which Mishcon was a great supporter. As a member of the Lords, he chose his subjects carefully, speaking only on topics he knew and understood. As a result, everyone listened. He would have been pleased to be regarded as old Labour.
Mishcon was the son of Arnold Mishcon, a rabbi in Brixton, and his wife Queenie, a schoolteacher. He was educated at the City of London school and, once he had qualified as a solicitor, opened his own firm in 1937, at the age of 22. This was an era of some anti-semitism in the legal profession and there was no other way for a bright Jewish boy to progress. In 1988, the firm merged and he became the senior partner of Mishcon de Reya, retiring in 1992 to become a consultant.
The best known of Mishcon’s clients – and certainly the saddest – was Ruth Ellis, in 1955 the last woman to be hanged in Britain. On the day before her execution, she told Mishcon that she had been given the gun with which she killed David Blakely, by an older lover, Desmond Cussen, who had driven her to Hampstead, where she had shot the racing driver. She had said nothing against Cussen at her trial because, she told Mishcon, “it seemed traitorous”. Mishcon telephoned this to the Home Office and the senior civil servant Sir Frank Newsam was tannoyed at Ascot races. But the police failed to find Cussen that afternoon to obtain corroboration and no reprieve was granted. Six months later, the home secretary asked the director of public prosecutions to consider the prosecution of Cussen as an accessory but no proceedings were brought.
Other notable clients with whom Mishcon dealt personally included Lord Palumbo and Jeffrey Archer, for whom he acted in the celebrated action in which the thriller writer received £500,000 damages over allegations that he had been with a prostitute. Mishcon was also present in court during the criminal trial in 2001, at the end of which Archer was sentenced to four years’ jail as a result of that previous trial. He advised Robert Maxwell’s sons during the prosecution brought against them (and in which they were acquitted), but had become a consultant by the time his firm was instructed by Princess Diana to handle her divorce.
From 1945 to 1949, Mishcon was a member of Lambeth council. A member of the London county council for Brixton from 1946 to 1965, he variously chaired five LCC committees before its replacement by the GLC. He failed to win a parliamentary seat for Labour on four occasions (Leeds North-West, Bath, and Gravesend twice) between 1950 and 1959, most notably when he was at odds with his party during the second campaign for the Gravesend seat.
He was, at the time, involved with the financier Maxwell Joseph, acting for him in the reverse takeover of Norfolk Hotels. This was capitalism at its most unacceptable for many in the Labour party at the time. Mishcon, however, maintained that it was “a perfectly honourable commercial transaction”.
Party politics aside, he was a member of the Wolfenden committee on homosexual offences and prostitution (1954-57), a member of the National Theatre board (1965-67) and the South Bank theatre board (1977-82), as well as the London Orchestra board in 1966. He was also a member of the government committee of inquiry into London Transport (1953-54) and the executive committee of the London Tourist Board (1965-67).
During the 1980s, he played a pivotal role as a secret intermediary between Israel and Jordan, when his country house was used on several occasions for private meetings between King Hussein (whom he had come to know when his daughter became friends at school with Princess Basma) and Shimon Peres, then the Israeli foreign minister. At the time, he also owned a house in Israel. His modesty showed when he declined an invitation to attend the ceremonies marking the 1994 signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.
A vice-president, and past president of the Association of Jewish Youth, he was vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (1967-73). From 1976 to 1977, he was vice chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, a position he held for three years. He was also president of the British council of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital. Among many charitable acts, he gave a library to University College London, in the name of the late Manfred Altman, the academic administrator. He had taken over from Altman as chairman of the Institute of Jewish Studies.
An immensely cerebral man, who trained himself to need only six hours of sleep – believing that a woman should have seven and only a fool eight – Mishcon was not a man given to small talk, nor one who would tolerate prattle for the sake of it. In the 1998 Lords debate on the family law bill, he advocated that a man should not be allowed to abandon his wife in favour of a “little floosie”. He suggested that a way could be found to encourage the husband to return to his wife via an intelligent judge or registrar.
He received many honours, including the stars of Ethiopia (1954) and Jordan (1995). He was a commander of the Royal Swedish Order of the North Star. In 1991 he received an honorary doctorate from Birmingham University. In 1992 he became one of the first – and still relatively few – solicitors to be appointed an honorary QC.
His first wife died in 1943; his second marriage ended in divorce in 1959; the third ended in 1972. He married his fourth wife in 1976; that was dissolved in 2001. He is survived by two sons, one of whom became a solicitor, and a daughter, who became a barrister. • Victor Mishcon, Baron Mishcon of Lambeth, solicitor, born August 14 1915; died January 28 2006