Matrix Chambers has trumpeted its modern working practices and new approach to law but, writes Michael Gerrard, if you strip away the veneer what you get is a normal set of chambers with an unusual mix of top-notch advocates
|April 04, 2001 at 08:03 PM
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It would be an understatement to say that Matrix made a few enemies when it swept through the Inns of Court last year plucking recruits from many of the UK’s best chambers.So it is hardly surprising that the three well-publicised reverses it has suffered in recent weeks have been met with barely disguised glee by a substantial section of the Bar. Perhaps the most serious setback, and the most surprising, came last week when acclaimed public and administrative law silk Michael Beloff QC, of 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, opted to go to Blackstone Chambers rather than Matrix.Last year Beloff said it was his “present intention” to become a Matrix member this year, despite tempting offers from other sets. He was even quoted as saying the new chambers would be the “Silicon Valley of human rights legislation”. The snub represented by his decision not join the set after all comes shortly after Matrix, which billed itself heavily as a human rights (HR) set on launch, managed to supply just one of the 19 barristers involved in the first major HR case in the House of Lords.Its HR credentials were already taking a roasting from press and rivals following the decision of one of its leading members, Nicholas Blake QC, to act for Fiji’s military regime.To understand what is happening to Matrix it is necessary to look at how it was established, and what has happened to the Human Rights Act (HRA) to which it so openly pinned its colours during its launch.Never had a set been launched with such a fanfare.Top-notch public relations company Shandwick, which handles the Bar Council’s account, was engaged to ensure that Matrix got as much coverage as possible within and outside the specialist press.It made good copy, not least because one of the leading figures in the establishment of the set was Cherie Booth QC. Other leading lights included silks Nicholas Blake QC, David Bean QC and rising star Clare Montgomery QC.The original Matrix contingent consisted of 22 largely Left-leaning barristers, working in employment, administrative, EU and criminal law. The common thread was their new Labour credentials – many are Society of Labour Lawyers stalwarts – and their interest in HR. Unusually they hailed from the legal aid and the commercial wings of the Bar.Worst affected was Booth’s set, 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, which lost seven members of its public law team. Other sets that formed Matrix’s core included legal aid practices Doughty Street Chambers and Two Garden Court, and commercial sets Monckton Chambers and Essex Court Chambers. So shaken was 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, that it embarked on what turned out to be ill-advised merger talks with Monckton Chambers.When the merger foundered in the summer the proposed Bentham Chambers became known as ‘Bedlam Chambers’.From the start Matrix was committed to HR work. Although the set’s chief executive Nick Martin recently told Legal Week “We never said we were just a human rights set”, much of the thrust of the original publicity was based on this area.“Human rights law occupies a central position in the collective expertise offered by Matrix,” its blurb boasted.Later, in the summer of 2000, Cherie Booth and rising junior Rabinder Singh wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph singing the act’s praises. They wrote: “The Human Rights Act represents the third way: a vision of human rights enjoyed by individuals on an equal basis and in a strong community. Liberty, equality and community are indivisible.”At the time of Matrix’s launch there was a lot of hype surrounding that autumn’s implementation of the HRA, which would see the European Convention of Human Rights, incorporated into English law.As one rival HR silk charitably put it: “There was a frenzy at the time and Matrix got wrapped up in all that.”Christopher Quinn, a barrister at rival HR set Cloisters says: “HRA was not brought into force simply to allow Cherie Booth to set up a new set of chambers, it was a coincidence.“People had been getting over-excited about the possibilities thrown up by the act long before Matrix came about.”He adds Matrix probably emphasised HRA because it was the most current issue at the time.Whatever the motives, the HR tag attached itself to the fledgling set and was to weigh like a millstone.But six months down the line the HRA has not produced the deluge of work that many of its supporters and even more of its detractors expected.Evidence of this came to light when the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine presented statistics to the joint parliamentary committee on HR last month, which showed that the new act has had little impact on the court system.In the High Court and County Court, 467,000 claims were issued between October and December 2000. Seventy-six claims relied on the act alone, although several hundred further cases involved related points. The results indicate that few cases are being brought solely under the act. Instead, the trend is for HR issues to be added to claims begun before the act came in last October. The civil justice system in particular appears to have evaded a mountain of HR-related work, with 87% of cases citing the act being handled in the criminal courts. There is also a strong argument to suggest that HR is not a distinctive area of law. Dinah Rose, a barrister at Blackstone Chambers, explains: “My experience has been that human rights informs the whole of my legal practice. It is now unusual to have any case when you do not have to at least consider the implications of HRA.”The fact that HR is being used as an added tool in established legal areas goes a long way to explain how Matrix failed to get more than one member, Rabinder Singh, involved in the Alconbury case – the first set-piece House of Lords HRA hearing.The case concerns whether the role of the Secretary of the State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions as the ultimate decision-maker in planning cases runs counter to the right to a fair hearing under Article 6.The vast majority of barristers engaged on the case are planning rather than HR experts. But if Alconbury is to be viewed as a planning rather than a HR case, the same cannot be said for the hearing in Fiji, which garnered Matrix so much poor press.Management board chairman Nicholas Blake QC represented Fiji’s military dictatorship government on an appeal to a case brought by a citizen represented by Doughty Street’s Geoffrey Robertson QC that questioned the Government’s legality.Many in the legal community were surprised that a set that so identified with the HR cause was representing a dictatorship.The practice manager of another set notes: “I do not understand why Matrix did it. Nicholas Blake has a reputation for doing high-profile HR work – miscarriages of justice, pro bono work and Privy Council death row applications.”Stung by the criticism Blake said in a statement: “I am saddened that my participation in this case has been the subject of misinformed criticism of me and my chambers.“It in no way represents a diminution of a commitment to human rights in the UK and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.”The set’s problems have been compounded by Beloff’s decision not to join.Some argue that his decision may have been influenced by a perception that the set might have lost some of its prestige in the year since he indicated his intention to go there.Others say Blackstone, already home to public and administrative heavyweights such as David Pannick QC and the recently arrived John Howell QC, will be better able to provide Beloff’s usual diet of blue-chip public work.A Bar source notes: “Matrix loses out on some high quality work because it is often identified with right-on, trendy work.”Another source suggests that hopes of ermine may have influenced him.“If he wants to get a peerage, which I am sure he does, it is going to be much more difficult for him to get this honour at Matrix, because accusations of cronyism would be rife.”Beloff’s decision once again underlines the fact that Matrix’s uniqueness as a chambers may have been overdone.Several chambers, not least the likes of Doughty Street, Cloisters and 14 Tooks Court, have championed the cause of HR in the guise of civil liberties over the years. Matrix has made much of its modern approach to working practices, use of practice managers rather than clerks and democratic structures – it pointedly does not have a head of chambers. But other leading sets lay claim to having a modern approach. While the role of clerks may be changing, someone still has to do the clerk’s job. Probably the one area where Matrix is truly different from the market leaders is in its mix of practitioners encompassing public and privately funded work. It sees this diversity as an advantage, allowing it to present multi-disciplinary teams. But others foresee problems with this approach. A barrister says: “It is a risk commercially putting crime and civil practitioners together, because criminal practitioners have different needs, not least in terms of clerking.“Unless you are Clare Montgomery you are likely to be earning less than your civil colleagues.” You only have to look to the experience of HR set Cloisters to see what can happen to sets with large contingents of publicly and privately funded lawyers. After months of division, the set underwent a split last year that saw all of its 15 criminal practitioners leaving for other sets, with the majority going to Michael Mansfield QC’s 14 Tooks Court. Far from being a new phenomenon, Matrix is the latest in a long line of breakaway chambers.After all, Doughty Street itself was formed by a breakaway group of Left-leaning tenants.The parallel goes further. When it launched 11 years ago the set was not shy to take advantage of the fact that one of its number was Helena Kennedy QC, the darling of the fashionable left at the time. Like Matrix Doughty Street championed modern management techniques, becoming the first set to appoint a practice manager. If anything makes Matrix different, it is not its HR slant, but its mix of practitioners. This has already led to some tension, and getting the various teams to work together will be the set’s greatest challenge.Nevertheless most people at the Bar expect the set to thrive. Not because it is unique in any way, but because of the strength of the individuals it has to offer.Martin himself admits that the constant identification of the set with HR is becoming a weight around the set’s neck.“People have not got around the fact that we offer a wide spectrum of work,” he says. “People need a convenient label and HR provides this.”A barrister at a rival set compared the hype surrounding Matrix’s launch and the promotion of HR, to the hysteria engendered by last year’s dotcom start-ups.“As with the dotcom start-ups everyone thought Matrix could break the mould,” he says. “When the froth evaporates, everyone finds the market remains the same as it always has been.”
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