‘I went absolutely nuts – one of the biggest tantrums of my life. There had been an incident at my primary school. I had been wrongly accused. The teachers wouldn’t hear my side. It was incredibly distressing for me to be condemned unheard. Small children have a sense of natural justice. What still gets me? People who can’t get a fair hearing.’

Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers, President of Magdalen College, Oxford since September 2020, a Lawyer Barrister of the Year, and widely regarded as one of the foremost advocates of her generation, is talking to me about her passion for fairness, for open justice and access to justice. Having acted both for and against government, ‘I prefer to be against. My real satisfaction is fighting for the underdog, to be a person who gives power to people who don’t have power. It’s one of the greatest gifts of a legal system when working properly. Anyway, in judicial review, the ground-breaking legal arguments are always against government.’ That said, she has ‘a lot of sympathy for the complexity with which government has to deal. My frustration is when government attempts to cover up things which have not gone right.’ She deplores ‘suggestions on the part of government that they might seek to reduce the scope of the duty of candour and the right to disclosure of documents. That’s critically important; it’s when you discover where the bodies are buried. It’s disappointing when documents are produced late in the day.’ She recalls a ‘tremendous broadside from Treasury Solicitors when in a case against government I witnesses-summoned the Government Actuary. I responded with a version of “Take a running jump, there is no property in a witness.” In more recent times there has been a deterioration in the respect that government gives to its own lawyers. When I was on the Attorney General’s panel there was a strong sense that we were valued for our independent perspective. Now there is pressure to take points that aren’t properly arguable, and to resist disclosure.’

Pride and warmth are evident when Dinah speaks of her family. ‘I grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Highgate, the only girl, with three older brothers. Dad’s family originally hailed from the East End, his father a tailor, who died when Dad was very young. Dad grew up in Southgate, went to Oxford and became a solicitor, the first lawyer in the family. There he met Mum: County, posh, not Jewish. They fell in love and Mum was converted by the founder of the Masorti movement in Britain.’

Dinah studied history at Magdalen and afterwards converted to law. ‘I’m the opposite of a rebel. Mum read history. That’s what I did. I loved history – Anglo Saxon – and still do. Even now Mum in her eighties writes and publishes mediaeval history books. One of my brothers had been to Magdalen. When I went, the College had been taking women for only five years.

‘I loved doing drama at school and university. I met my future husband at Oxford when he was directing a production of Macbeth, and cast me as Malcolm.’ They now have two daughters. ‘I even toyed with the stage as a career, rapidly realising my foolishness. Law had, however, always been at the back of my mind. I remember one day when the headmistress called three friends and me into her room over a complaint about girls making noise on the Northern Line. I replied that it couldn’t have been us as one of us was on holiday at the time. I received the rejoinder: ‘I know you want to be a barrister but don’t practise on me!’ The Bar was, however, not woman-friendly in the 1980s, when I was finishing at Oxford, and I was nearly deterred. I went to a careers adviser and found myself saying I was interested in being a solicitor, despite my father’s advice ‘don’t ever become a solicitor and go into partnership – it’s a terrible idea’. The adviser said, ‘Be a barrister. That’s what you really want to do. Don’t be intimidated – look at what you have achieved so far.’

‘At the time many chambers were, to be blunt, looking to take a token woman. It was not a bad time to be a woman with good academic results’ – she doesn’t mention here her first class degree – ‘and a lot of self confidence. I did several mini pupillages, including one at 2 Hare Court (later Blackstone). They took me. There I met Presiley Baxendale, my first pupil supervisor. She was amazing, one of very few women with families who were forging a career at the Commercial Bar. Chambers already had a woman QC, Barbara Dohmann, which was quite unusual. [Lord] Anthony Lester QC took me under his wing and I appeared in the House of Lords with him on a case the day before I got my rights of audience. I had to get a special dispensation from the Bar Council to go on the record.

‘When I took silk [in 2006] I started doing competition cases, as an extra string to my bow. I really enjoyed the complexity and the economics. I also became a specialist appellate advocate, including in cases outside my normal field of expertise.’

From her experience both as advocate and for some years a deputy High Court judge, what makes good advocacy? ‘[Lord] David Pannick QC, a huge influence on me, always has Three Points, making any case sound beguilingly simple. For me it’s knowledge, attention to detail, structure and clarity. First, I read everything and make sure I understand all the facts and case law, suck it all in. Then all of that information has to be downloaded into submissions, and fitted into a structure that is persuasive. The order of points is critical. For example, you might decide to outline your key legal propositions first, and only then take the court to the case law which supports what you have laid out as a matter of principle. Many advocates will go to the cases first, without a clear narrative, and risk getting bogged down. Advocacy should be story telling. Another thing I like to do is to turn my opponent’s best case against them.

‘Cross examination is 99% preparation. Once again, structure and the order of questions are critical. It should be like a funnel: you take the witness into the wide lips of the funnel and then their options get narrower and narrower until there is only one place to go…

‘Judges value succinctness, so don’t put in long skeletons. But remember that brilliance doesn’t always win and absolutely infuriating advocacy doesn’t always lose. When sitting as a judge, the thing that disappointed me most was when advocates hadn’t done their homework and didn’t know the applicable law. But it is very important to be courteous to advocates. I hate to see judicial bullying. You never know what pressure somebody is under.’

Favourite tribunal? Says the counsel who gave the valedictory on Lady Hale’s retirement: ‘The Supreme Court, so clever and courteous, a delight every time, a nice court room, lovely staff. I absolutely love it. Clarity, structure and brevity are important in appellate advocacy. Answer the question when asked in a straight way: it’s so irritating when counsel tries to avoid it. The questions are the best bits, your opportunity to see what is in the judges’ minds and a golden opportunity to persuade them.’

Why now Magdalen again? ‘After 30 years I took a sabbatical and was approached by headhunters on behalf of the College. The interview went on for 12 hours in various modes, including over dinner. Being President of the College was an irresistible opportunity to do something different. I hadn’t anticipated coronavirus! A lot of the job is currently impossible because I can’t entertain people or interact personally with the students as I would wish. We are doing as much as we can online. It’s been a difficult first term in many ways, but you do get to know your colleagues well when dealing with a crisis. Living here is a real privilege. I am surrounded by world-leading experts in everything from the COVID-19 vaccine to Shakespeare. Every morning I go for a run of more than a mile, all completely within the lovely grounds of our 15th century college.

‘The College and tutorial system at Oxford have come through the pandemic well so far.’ We are speaking at the end of Michaelmas term, just before Christmas. ‘First year students, many of whom had had little or no education since March, are appreciating the intellectual excitement of starting their courses, the delight in being able to learn. The pandemic has brought the intellectual adventure into relief this term. Most of our teaching is in tutorial groups of two or three; most of it is being carried out face to face, some of it outdoors, with lectures online. Students have been living in household groups of up to 12, and many have formed close friendships. Because the College is a relatively small unit, we are able to provide a greater degree of pastoral care than many universities. Students who have had to self-isolate have been provided with three college-cooked meals a day, daily welfare contact, delivery of books and other necessities, and a range of online services, as well as their tutorials and lectures. Although we had a number of students who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the term, we had no positive tests at all when they were tested before returning home for Christmas.

‘Over the last few years Magdalen has put a great deal of effort and resources into broadening its intake pool. We still have further to go, but have seen remarkable progress over the past three years in particular, with much larger percentages of our intake coming from state schools, Black and Minority Ethnic communities, and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Magdalen, and Oxford in general, should be a focal point to which people with potential come from any place, and any background, to benefit from and contribute to what we have to offer. If that thought excites you, there is no better place in the world.’

In a ‘no platforming’ style attack that came out of left field she recently had to explain why she had accepted the brief to represent the Cayman Islands’ government in an appeal being brought to the Privy Council by two women who were seeking the right to enter a same sex marriage. Her explanation was characteristically robust, citing the principles crucial to the maintenance of access to justice and the rule of law that lawyers are not to be equated with their clients, that they may not withhold their services because the opinions of their clients are unacceptable to them or a section of the public, and that they should not be subject to pressure to reject an unpopular brief. The challenge rapidly lost momentum, after her principled stand received overwhelming support from the legal profession.

Advice to students about the Bar? ‘I am cautious about giving advice because the Bar is in a period of flux. Students need to do their homework carefully on sets of chambers to ensure that they are stable and economically viable. For the commercial and public law Bar, academic results are extremely important. Do as many mini-pupillages as you can, and don’t limit yourself to the obvious high-profile sets.’

Of everything she has achieved so far, what is her family most proud? ‘Undoubtedly becoming President at Magdalen, though my daughter, Katie, who is at Pembroke College here, told me she was disgusted when I took this job because she didn’t want us living in the same city while she was at university. However, she seems to have come round to the situation – this may be because Peter, my husband, delivered emergency spaghetti Bolognese to her when she had an essay crisis.’

And the case of which Dinah is most proud? Jewish comprehensive school JFS (formerly the Jews’ Free School) had refused a place to a boy whose mother, like Dinah’s, had converted through the Masorti movement, a non-Orthodox synagogue. Representing the boy’s family, Dinah successfully challenged the school’s admissions policy on discrimination grounds. ‘Our children hadn’t been able to go to JFS because of that policy. We won in the Supreme Court 5-4 on direct discrimination. It was like a healing of the wounds. I felt I didn’t have anything to prove after that. And it was particularly nice to win it against David Pannick!’