Ian, many congratulations on taking Silk earlier this year. I believe it was your first time of asking – what made you decide to apply last year?

I was guided by my clerks – they are very attuned to my practice and have always given me a sound steer. I trust their judgement completely, so when they said this was the year to go for it, I did what I was told. Our clerks have a good nose for these things, and they were proved right. Some of my peers suggested I had taken leave of my senses, in light of the drop off in work for Criminal Silks, but as my practice is not exclusively Criminal, I felt the risk was worth taking.

How do you think your practice is going to look, going forward?

I think there are valid concerns in regard to the future of the Criminal Bar and the Justice System, and that we are all going to have to work not only harder, but “smarter”. One needs to remain calm and maintain a sense of optimism. There is an enormous amount of talent at the Criminal Bar, talent which will always be in demand, in one form or another. Criminal counsel need to take a long, hard look at themselves and think beyond the narrow confines of conventional Criminal work.

Your practice has evolved beyond Criminal work. How did that come about?

Fifteen years ago, a specialist Marine firm in the City had a merchant ship captain who had been arrested at Falmouth Harbour. They rang Chambers to enquire if the arrest was legal or not. They spoke to my clerk and he shrewdly recommended they speak to a Criminal rather than a Civil practitioner, and put them on to me. I spoke to them, and having listened to the facts of the matter, I advised that the arrest was not legal. The captain was released later that afternoon.
Shortly thereafter, the solicitors asked me to give a talk to their Port Representatives in relation to PACE [Police and Criminal Evidence Act] powers. The rest, as they say, is history.Following on from the talk, all work relating to marine accidents, fatalities, collisions and pollution came my way. Civil firms began instructing on other regulatory matters, MAIB inquires, corporate inquiries etc. Naturally I took a rather keen interest in the relevant regulations and legislations, and have developed a bit of a specialism. I am rather flattered to be mentioned in Legal 500 as “first choice for shipping crime.”

You have just been involved in a mock trial involving the mooted offence of ‘ecocide’. How did that come about, and what does it mean for the future?

Ecocide is an innovative concept proposed to the United Nations by, among others, my wife [Polly Higgins, fellow barrister and leading environmental campaigner], which would become the fifth “Crime Against Peace” (the others being genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity). It is, in essence, an evolution of much pollution legislation extant in Europe, but catering to misfeasance on a large scale by corporations. The innovative part is that it holds Chief Executives to account on a strict liability basis rather than allowing them to hide behind corporate structures. We conducted a mock trial involving two fictional CEOs on three allegations: one being an oil spill, the other two being pollution arising from oil extraction from tar sands. We opted to defend and we decided not to “spare the horses”, feeling that were the concept and mechanics of the crime of ecocide to have any real and lasting validity, they had to be tested to destruction, so to speak. Otherwise, it could have been seen, and reported, as a whitewash or a propaganda exercise by opponents. An impressive team prosecuted, Michael Mansfield QC with two superb juniors – Jane Russell from Tooks Chambers and Steven Powles from Doughty Street. Chambers wanted to match the quality of the prosecution team and so I persuaded Chris Parker QC and Adam Hiddleston, both of this parish, to defend. I “played” instructing solicitor with a brief to prepare defence proofs and arrange expert witnesses. We were determined to make a fight of it, and we did!

There was a randomly selected jury of lay people, provided by a company that does this sort of thing for documentaries and such like. The jury acquitted on the oil spill and convicted unanimously on the tar sands pollution, an interesting outcome and one which I believe proves the validity and worth of the exercise. From a practical perspective, it was invaluable, in that we identified and addressed numerous technical issues around how legislation of this sort would operate. It also helped to raise awareness of the concept of ecocide – Sky News “live streamed” the trial to 140,000 people on the internet, the Guardian and Independent both covered it live on their websites, and the Financial Times featured it prominently the following Saturday. I was pleased to note that the FT said “in the battle of the Silks, honours were even”. A tribute to Mansfield and Parker but one in whose reflected glory I am happy shamelessly to bask.

It sounds like your practice will certainly never be dull. Do you have a closing message to your colleagues?

Don’t lose heart. Use your brains, broaden your horizons, make yourself available, and never forget they will always need us.

Ian lawrie QC was interviewed by Matthew Lawson of LPA legal