This article is co-published with EJIL Talk!
When lawyers tell of the making of European law, they usually speak of statespersons like Jean Monnet, cases like van Gend & Loos and judges like Koen Lenaerts. But in that pantheon belongs one of the legal architects of the now-vibrant fields of European Union and Human Rights Law, Anthony P. Lester, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, who died of heart disease in London just days ago.
Lord Lester should be remembered in these pages for passionately advocating, before skeptical judges and parliamentarians, a reciprocal “overseas trade in bill of rights.” In the late 20th century, that cross-Atlantic channel of ideas brought American-style civil rights into European law and inspired Lester’s career. One generation later, in Lawrence v. Texas, that channel flowed back in the opposite direction to help bring the European-style of human rights that Lester pioneered into American constitutionalism.
As chronicled in this Times report, throughout his life, Lester fought for human rights in courtrooms, parliamentary chambers, and editorial pages. A tireless human rights campaigner, Lester devoted countless hours to leading successful legislative efforts to introduce civil rights legislation to the United Kingdom. And even while doing so, he became the leading public law barrister in the United Kingdom, re-imagining British public law advocacy to ensure that public law cases started in the British Isles would end up before European courts in Luxembourg and Strasbourg, and then find a remedy at home in the U.K. with the Human Rights Act.
The son of Harry and Kate Lester, a Jewish barrister and milliner from London, Lester read history and law at Trinity College, Cambridge, before accepting a life-changing Harkness fellowship for post-graduate study at Harvard Law School. Arriving in the 1960s, just weeks after the Ku Klux Klan murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, he immersed himself in the American human rights movement, which led to his book Justice in the American South (1964). He became lifelong friends with American constitutional law scholars Charles Black and (later Yale and Penn Law Dean and Judge) Louis Pollak, with whom he had an intense decades-long dialogue about human rights on both sides of the Atlantic.
Upon returning home, Lester became determined to introduce modern race relations concepts into British legislation, and seized his chance as a legal strategist for former Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. Lester devoted countless hours to campaigning for equality and free speech, leading successful legislative efforts to enact the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Defamation Act 2013. An inspirational NGO leader, Lester also prominently promoted human rights in Northern Ireland, birth control and abortion through the Family Planning Association, and as a founder of such influential human rights NGOs as Interights, the Institute of Race Relations, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and the Runnymede Trust. His signal legislative accomplishment tackled the major human rights issue in British politics since the Attlee government first ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (whose daily contribution to British life many ordinary citizens still don’t fully grasp). Lester’s appointment as a life peer to the House of Lords culminated three decades of lobbying successive governments to make the European Convention on Human Rights directly enforceable in British courts. By then Lord Lester of Herne Hill, he introduced two bills that became the blueprint for the British Human Rights Act 1998, which legislatively internalized the European Convention on Human Rights into U.K. law.
Lester’s legislative achievements were even more remarkable because they came amid a dazzling run of exhausting public law litigation. Called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1963, Lester took silk in 1975 and became the “go-to” public law barrister of his day, at 2 Hare Court, later renamed Blackstone Chambers. He acted repeatedly for the Times on such headline matters as Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd. and the Leveson Inquiry. In the Thalidomide case, he beat back attempts to ban the press from imputing negligence to the makers of a drug that harmed unborn babies; in the 1987 Spycatcher case, he thwarted Margaret Thatcher from banning a former secret agent’s memoir of his time with MI5. And Lester did not just stand up for the famous or powerful. In heart-rending cases, he fought for individuals’ rights to stop force-feeding Tony Bland, a victim of the Hillsborough football disaster in a persistent vegetative state; to allow Diane Blood to use her dead husband’s sperm to bear their children; and to give the doctor of Annie Lindsell, a terminally ill woman, the legal right to assist her suicide.
Amid this frenzy of work, I saw with my own eyes Lester’s real, and deeply moving, love of family and friends. He lived a joyous, loving life in welcoming homes in Herne Hill and Ireland with his fellow barrister Katya Lester, a compassionate and incisive asylum judge, their gifted children Gideon Lester, artistic director of the theatre at Bard College, Maya Lester, a leading QC and European lawyer at Brick Court Chambers; and three grandchildren. Through it all, Anthony somehow found time selflessly to nurture dozens of proteges—utterly blind to race, creed, or gender—including such pioneering Blackstone colleagues as Lord David Pannick, Judge Pushpinder Saini, Dinah Rose, Shaheed Fatima, and myself.
When I first met Lester at a comparative human rights law conference in 1995, we sparred over several days, at times pointedly, about American versus European human rights traditions. But when the meeting ended, Lester asked—without any expectation of return favor—how he could help me in my career. Over the next several decades, he called, emailed, and faxed me and others literally thousands of times on my behalf—on all manner of electronic devices (none of which he ever totally mastered)—sending at all hours of day and night, kind and often hilarious words of friendship, encouragement, inspiration and challenge.
At what should have been the pinnacle of his pathbreaking career, Anthony retired from his practice and the Lords and struggled with his health until a few days ago. While he was not spared controversy, what I personally observed was his unflagging generosity — always given without expectation of reward — and his selfless commitment to human rights. These qualities deserve celebration and emulation. He cared about so much more than just himself. Over a brilliant and innovative career, he organized his life’s work around what he called in his book, Five Ideas to Fight For (2016): human rights, equality, free speech, privacy and the rule of law. He did not just talk about these ideas: he boldly fought for them, at huge personal risk. At this time of Brexit and global human rights despondency, those ideas are even more worth fighting for. For without daring public lawyers like Anthony Lester, we cannot achieve “Just Security.”