Interview: Lord Hendy QC

After a lifetime working in the industrial relations field, how does the barrister champion of the trade union movement see the law, art of advocacy and today’s judgecraft?

‘I got a phone call from the Leader’s office. I was going to be made a peer. I thought, “Nice, I might be able to do something useful with that.”’ John Hendy QC, labour law expert, on the moment he learned he was to receive a peerage in PM Theresa May’s Resignation Honours List on the recommendation of the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. ‘In 2017 I and my good friend, Professor Keith Ewing were asked to advise the Labour front bench on changes to industrial relations law. We were delighted, having spent decades advocating such changes.’ Lord Hendy was well placed to offer advice, having co-written A Manifesto for Labour Law as chair of the Institute of Employment Rights, a labour movement think tank. He has spent a lifetime working in the industrial relations field and been dubbed ‘barrister champion of the trade union movement’.

A Londoner, John was brought up in a left-wing political family, his mother the youngest daughter of a hereditary peer (‘I didn’t know his politics – he died before I was born’) – and his father a communist electrician and trade unionist: ‘self-taught, read all the classic political texts and went to university on a trade union scholarship in his late 30s’. John was schooled at a comprehensive in Hayes, then a grammar in Ealing. Promotion? ‘No, trading down. The comprehensive was light years better; aspiration was unlimited; you could become anything. Education at the grammar was, with honourable exceptions, a process of undermining confidence. The careers adviser told my mum, “He’s tall, he might make a policeman.” No fan of the police, she went spare. She and dad wanted me to go to university. I wanted to be a film director…

‘I did badly at school but managed to get in to do law at Ealing Technical College.’ Why law? ‘Dad had done a law degree whilst an electrician and now lectured on labour law there. I inherited his interest. I thought if I got a degree, I could try films afterwards.’ This strategy was repeated in a master’s degree at Queen’s, Belfast – ‘a unique course in British and Irish trade union law; I was absolutely enthused by TU law’ – and then to the Bar. ‘I thought: no point messing about – I must be in the front row rather than the second.’

Pupillage followed at Old Square, and an offer of a tenancy, but instead he took a job, not in films, but to do a three-year stint establishing a new law centre in Newham. ‘A good salary and wonderful opportunities to set the philosophy, hire the staff and buy the desks and pencils.’ Then, after a year’s lecturing at Middlesex Poly and becoming disillusioned with academic committees, he ran into the clerk at Old Square. ‘Why not come back to us? “Not a bad plan,” I thought.’ He did everything: petty crime, shoplifting, defective brakes, and a lot of personal injury. ‘Wretched cases in the West Ham mags sharpened me up.’ More significantly for John’s future, ‘I did a lot of employment tribunal and hence Employment Appeal Tribunal cases as the law developed in the 1970s and 80s.’ Many were reported in the new specialist employment law reports (‘an advantage because judges see your name’). ‘At the end of the 70s I was lucky to be in some leading trade union cases and my course was set.’ [Duport Steels Ltd. v Sirs [1980] ICR 161; 1 AER 529; IRLR 112 (HL) and Express Newspapers Ltd v McShane [1980] AC 672; 1 AER 65; IRLR 35 (HL).] Then the Miners’ Strike: ‘I did nothing but NUM for 18 months. I think the judges and Bar respected me even though many thought my client [the NUM led by Arthur Scargill] was the Devil Incarnate. Quintin Hogg [Lord Hailsham] gave me silk in 1987.’

Little did the clerk know, but he had just recruited a future head of Chambers. ‘Being head was relatively easy. We had a democratic constitution; everybody did their bit. After nine years I was pleased to have passed on the responsibility and even more pleased with how Chambers has developed since. We have expanded enormously whilst preserving the original egalitarian, non-hierarchical, supportive ethos.’

As a senior advocacy trainer at Gray’s Inn, what for him is advocacy? ‘The art of persuasion. I enjoy the mixture of strategy and tactics, how a case can best be put, the order in which submissions are made, sculpting the questions in cross-examination, the use of analogy to illustrate a point, the skill of adapting your presentation to interventions of the court. As a trainer I make the point that advocates should adapt their style to their personality. If charm is your stock in trade, don’t try to be a heavyweight bruiser. Don’t hum and ha; keep your hands still; be still. Empathy is also part of the skill of being a barrister. Watch, listen and learn from opponents, leaders and juniors. I’ve seen hundreds of advocates over a professional life, if not thousands, and I learn from them all, constantly acquiring new tricks and dumping others.’

Like me, John has retained traces of a North West London accent. ‘There’s an element of bilingualism here: the choice of words in court, the patois of a barrister. But I spend much time addressing trade unionists, hopefully in language people can understand and relate to.’ It is his practice when appearing in group litigation such as the Potters Bar, Ladbroke Grove and Southall train crash inquiries to hold a daily ‘mass meeting’ at the end of every day for the families or the workers to debrief them about what has happened that day – ‘remember that a lot of it could have been conducted in Chinese as far as the lay clients are concerned’ – and to explain what to expect next. When he won the case of the two-year strike at Friction Dynamics ‘we had a hundred Welsh speaking workers and needed an interpreter for the mass meetings.’

John describes labour law as being at the point of conflict between labour and capital: ‘that’s its fascination.’ In his writings John has described the law as politics in action and judges as ‘political actors’. But he is full of admiration at how judges unfamiliar with labour law demonstrate ‘a remarkably quick grasp of the notoriously complex law on industrial action and the world of industrial relations’. Did he ever want to be a judge himself? ‘I did apply once. I was told it was a strong application and a strong interview but that there were stronger! In my heart it was the best result: I just didn’t want to live with the possibility that I could have been a judge but hadn’t applied. It suited me that the door was shut for me. I like being partisan on behalf of my clients. People have largely chosen me to be on one side rather than the other; and I like being on the side of the little guys. Though personal sympathy with one’s client is not as important as the cab rank rule - which I regard as absolutely fundamental to our system.’

John sees law in historical, economic, developmental and comparative terms. ‘It’s not so much what law is but why, and how to change it, drawing on the experience of other countries, because the issues are universal.’ As an adviser to Laura Pidcock MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights, and with the election in sight when we meet, John is enthusiastic about Labour’s programme for law at the workplace. He describes it as wide-ranging and transformational. It centres on the creation of a new Department for Employment Rights and the reintroduction of sectoral collective bargaining. ‘People may have forgotten that compulsory collective bargaining was introduced by Churchill in 1909 over minimum wages. We now want it to cover all issues which arise at work and to extend, eventually, across all sectors of the economy. I am full of enthusiasm for getting this project through. It would be the pinnacle of my career in the law.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘Get other experience before coming to the Bar. At school studying law at university can seem a good idea, but gain experience of the world and do a degree in something else that interests you. At the Bar you have more chance if you have done something else first. Understanding people and the world are essential tools.’

‘As the only Hendy in the Lords I don’t have to call myself “Lord Hendy of” anything; but I am allowed what’s called a “geographical association” with Hayes and Harlington.’ He has never lost touch with his roots.

Interviewer: Anthony Inglese 
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Anthony Inglese

Anthony was head of legal in five Government Legal Departments over a 38-year career, most recently as General Counsel and Solicitor to HM Revenue & Customs. A Bencher of Gray’s Inn, he now trains and mentors lawyers.