Anthony Lester obituary: Ground-breaking British lawyer with strong Irish connection

Renowned lawyer deeply upset when the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016

One of Anthony Lester’s key victories was in a case involving former taoiseach Albert Reynolds. File photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Anthony Lester
Born: July 3rd, 1936
Died: August 8th, 2020

Anthony Lester, QC Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was an internationally renowned human rights lawyer and legislator who built strong connections in Ireland.

He combined forcefully and effectively the rhetoric of human rights in court cases across the world, with pioneering equality law reform in the UK. Cases where he expanded the right to freedom of speech and challenged gender, race and sexual orientation discrimination are regularly cited in legal rulings across the world.

Born in London, he was the grandchild of Jewish refugees and the elder son of a barrister, Harry Lester, and his wife, Kate (nee Cooper-Smith), who was a milliner. From the City of London school he went on to national service in the Royal Artillery (1955-57). Although a non-observing Jew, he refused to put his religion as Church of England, rather than Jewish, when advised to do so by his commanding officer before the ill-fated Suez invasion in 1956, on the grounds that he would be less likely to be tortured if he were captured during the exercise.


He went on to study history and law at Trinity College, Cambridge, then spent two years at Harvard Law School and secured a master’s. He was called to the bar in 1963 as a member of Lincoln’s Inn and began his lifetime pursuit of an improvement in the equality laws in the UK. He was deeply influenced by his early experiences of anti-Semitism, and by his work with the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s.

As the UK has neither a written constitution nor a bill of rights, Lester persistently advocated for transnational responses to injustice and inequality, arguing that judges should look to European and international norms, rather than domestic law. He was often criticised, even mocked, for so doing, but his work of many decades came to fruition when the European Convention of Human Rights was incorporated into domestic UK law in 1998. That allowed people a remedy for breach of that convention in UK courts, rather than having to travel to Strasbourg to argue their case before the European Court of Human Rights. Ireland only followed suit five years later.

Having acted for the UK government on the case taken by Ireland on whether police interrogation techniques used in Northern Ireland amounted to torture, he was keenly aware of the importance of Bills of Rights in peace processes, working closely with the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights on a proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in the 1970s. He appeared in a number of important free-speech cases in Northern Ireland. He represented the Irish News in a defamation case about a scathing restaurant review, the Family Planning Association trying to secure the publication of better information on lawful abortions, and the Times newspaper in a defamation case about the campaign for the vindication of Lee Clegg, a British soldier convicted of murder in the North. He also appeared in the unsuccessful 1991 case challenging the UK Home Secretary’s 1988 ban on IRA spokespersons on the BBC and other UK broadcasters.

Alongside his court work, he worked in the political sphere to deliver change to equality legislation in the UK. As a special adviser to Roy Jenkins, the then home secretary, he drafted two ground breaking anti-discrimination Bills – the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. A Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords from 1993, he made important contributions to legislation such as freedom of information and civil partnership, and in modernising the law of defamation to make it easier for newspapers to publish investigative work without fear of a crippling libel suit.

One of his key victories was in a case involving Albert Reynolds. The then former taoiseach had sued the Sunday Times in the English courts for libel, on foot of an article published only in the UK editions in 1994 that suggested that he had misled the Dáil. A jury found that Reynolds had been libelled, although he was awarded only 1p in damages. The Sunday Times won in the House of Lords, then the highest court for England and Wales, which secured a broader defence for the UK media when reporting on matters of political and public interest.

He became a member of the Irish Bar in 1993 and of the Northern Irish Bar a year later, and was an adjunct professor in University College Cork from 2005 where he gave generously of his time and court experience, presiding over lively and often heated seminar discussions on the prohibition of the wearing of the Sikh turban in An Garda Síochána, criminal and civil measures to prevent forced marriage, and – a topic particularly close to his heart – using the European Convention on Human Rights in Irish Courts. He remained concerned that the convention was not given sufficient weight in Irish law, and that the Belfast Agreement’s promise of an equivalence of human rights protection was not met.

He was highly critical of Ireland’s defamation law and advocated strongly for greater protections for freedom of expression and for public interest media reporting without recourse to costly litigation. Sometimes provoking controversy, he was advocate for reform of the legal profession and judicial appointment processes, both in Ireland and the UK.

In the context of the #MeToo movement, he was accused in 2018 of an historical act of harassment. He absolutely denied it, and argued that he did not get a fair hearing from the House of Lords. However, given his then failing health, he decided to retire rather than accepting the lengthy suspension that was proposed as his sanction.

The pink house

His ties to Ireland started with a family holiday to west Cork in 1974. The Lesters fell in love with the area’s remoteness, unspoilt nature and friendly people. They bought the Old Dispensary in Lowertown, west of Schull, and painted it a distinctive raspberry pink. The colour is so remarkable that a letter posted in the US and addressed to Lesters, The Pink House, Schnoo, Ireland, was delivered with aplomb by An Post.

He learned the basics of sailing and purchased a trusty, but heavy, Drascombe lugger, which was launched annually with a great deal of splashing and mud, and infrequently left its mooring for family picnics to the islands. He similarly dabbled in golf and in later years took up water colouring with enthusiasm and skill. For many years, he organised an annual painting course in west Cork, taught by locally based artists. The only exhibition of his own delicately drawn paintings was held in the gallery in Ballydehob.

He was deeply upset when the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, correctly considering some political arguments made in favour of Brexit an implicit repudiation of his life’s work. His last book, Five Ideas to Fight For, published the same year, suggested that human rights, equality, free speech, privacy and the rule of law would need to be constantly defended from erosion by a UK parliament seeking to exert itself.

He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Catherine “Katya” (nee Wassey), also a barrister and judge, his son Gideon, a noted theatre artistic director in the USA, and his daughter, Maya, who is also a Queen’s Counsel and has joined the Irish Bar, and three grandchildren.