In 1986 Sir Howard Morrison, then in his late 30s, was Chief Magistrate of Fiji when there was a coup. ‘I advised the Governor General during the ensuing constitutional crisis not to comply with the new government’s demands. One day a crowd gathered in the streets – ominously, in view of Fiji’s ethnic tensions. I went out, spoke to the leaders and things calmed down. The coup failed but a few weeks later there was a second, more muscular coup, which led to Fiji becoming a republic. That was the end of that job but they very generously appointed me OBE.’

I am sitting with Sir Howard in the Bridge Bar at Gray’s Inn, where he is now a Bencher. He has recently been appointed by the Attorney General to give independent and expert legal advice to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, on the investigation and prosecution of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. With his deep international experience any Attorney General would be keen to get him on board.

Born in Kent into an RAF family, the young Howard was taken to Egypt aged three (‘this was pre-Suez; my first memories were seeing the pyramids, the Sphinx and ships going through the Canal’). A later family posting meant that he began his secondary education in a military boarding school in Germany for RAF, army and diplomatic children. ‘I lived in an international community – and that feeling never left me. We went on a school trip to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; I had recently been reading about Anne Frank, who had died there. I was sad and angry that a young girl had been betrayed and treated as Anne had been. It was a pivotal moment for me, one which I think shaped many of my later career choices.’

Further schooling in England followed, and then a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) year, teaching in northern Ghana. ‘From schoolboy to schoolmaster in one jump. I probably got more out of the kids than they did from me. I flirted with the idea of doing English Literature at university, with a wild notion that I could write novels and be a war correspondent like Hemingway, but a friend talked me into law, as a more sensible degree. I spent more time on the rugby pitch than in the law library in my first year. By the time I graduated I wasn’t convinced I wanted to do law for the rest of my life and I enjoyed a brief spell in the army.

‘But it was advocacy that drew me to the Bar. By chance I met a barrister at an airfield. He was learning to fly. I was engaged in freefall parachuting. He said if I ever got called I should give him a ring. Was it a throwaway remark, I wondered, but I did ring him and became his pupil. This was the great Rex Tedd, later QC and leader of the Midland and Oxford Circuit. All that followed flowed from his initial kindness. I made the very wise choice of applying to Gray’s Inn.

‘Rex was based in chambers in Leicester. When he left for Birmingham, I followed. I did a bit of everything: crime, family, contract, employment, until prosecuting and defending crime absorbed all my time. Thanks to legal aid I could make a decent living out of crime for my young family - unlike today. Then I saw an advert in The Times: the Crown Agents were looking for a resident magistrate in Fiji. I applied. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. To my pleasant surprise I was offered the job and we moved to Fiji. People would think it was all cocktails on the veranda but it was seriously busy, as I had the jurisdiction of a circuit judge, a county court judge and a coroner, with an endless stream of cases. Theft was still larceny.’

After Fiji he returned to the Bar and was invited by James Hunt QC to join 1 King’s Bench Walk. Then came another pivotal point. ‘I saw an advert in Counsel for work for the Former Yugoslavia Tribunal (ICTY) at The Hague. They wanted criminal law experience. I filled it in and forgot all about it. Months later I received a phone call in bad German from a Croatian who had been convicted in what had been the first war crimes trial since Nuremburg and now wanted somebody else to represent him on appeal. I didn’t even know I was on the list! That case led to several others in ICTY as well as one for a Cabinet Minister in the ICT for Rwanda, all of which I did alongside my UK practice. These Tribunals are adversarial without a jury. The civil lawyers are happy because no jury; the common lawyers are happy because adversarial.’

He sat as a Recorder in civil, crime and family law. He took silk in 2001. ‘I did nothing but prosecute murderers. By 2004 I was exhausted. You don’t realise how much the big war crimes cases get to you. I was encouraged to apply for the Circuit Bench and, on the “nothing ventured” basis, did so successfully.’ He was also appointed as a senior judge of the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus.

Five years later he saw another advert, this time for judges for a new special tribunal for Lebanon. ‘I applied and was taken aback when asked “did I want to be interviewed in Arabic or French?” I must have said something right because they offered me the job. But before I could get properly into it the Foreign Office asked me to change course – which I did over a weekend – and I became a trial judge at ICTY in the case against Radovan Karadzic.’ While at ICTY he applied and, after a lobbying process in which he had to engage personally, was elected as one of six judges to the International Criminal Court (ICC). He took up the appointment when the massive Karadzic case finished. He served on the ICC from 2015 (the year he was knighted) to 2021, establishing a reputation for rigorous analysis and decisions, including a dissent in one case (Lukic) where he said he found the majority’s decision ‘with respect, unfathomable’.

After his ICC term ended he continued training judges and university lecturing across the world. Then in March came a call from the Attorney General’s Office. ‘Would I be interested in helping the Ukrainian Prosecutor General? I went to see the Attorney. She has definitely got the Ukraine situation in her heart and is working to make things better. The UK government is genuinely engaged in assisting the Prosecutor.

‘Why me? Perhaps my ICC experience. Perhaps also my experience of going to the recently liberated Iraq in 2005-06 as an independent adviser to the judiciary at the request of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Second Iraq War, we couldn’t leave the Iraq judiciary to flounder in the chaos. The judges were desperate for help. They were good lawyers but suddenly there was nobody above them telling them what to do, and at first they didn’t know how to cope. The gunfire in Baghdad was continuous. I went initially for three months and stayed for 12, a seven-day-a-week job with a wide mandate, including mentoring the judiciary. I gained a huge respect for the Iraqi people.’

At the time of our interview in late May, Sir Howard had been working with the Prosecutor General for six weeks.* He said to me at the time: ‘Almost every day there is a virtual meeting or an email exchange. Iryna Venediktova is very intelligent, a professor of civil law, multi-lingual and able to navigate the unknown complexities of Ukrainian politics. She asks the right questions, listens to advice, takes action.

‘Working with her is rewarding because I feel I am making a difference. She is swamped with investigatory reports; some solid, some less so. She started with the right case: the soldier was guilty and on 18 May pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian shortly after the invasion began. Lots of cases will be on these lines: young soldiers, unlikely to be sophisticated or possess much in the way of social skills, and vulnerable in their own right as young soldiers often are. She fully understands the need for proper evidence for a prosecution and the importance of evidence-gathering, collection and preservation.

‘The Ukrainian system is sophisticated. I can advise on individual cases, on the use of evidence and on approaches to handling large numbers of cases and other strategic matters. I will also train Ukrainian judges via Zoom in what for them is a new area of law: war crimes and possibly genocide.

‘The crime of aggression, however, would require the setting up of a special international tribunal. The wording of the Rome Statute precludes it from being tried by the ICC.

‘Going back to February, I was amazed that anybody bought the Russian statements that the build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border was simply a military exercise. Many people are too young to remember the Cold War and how Russia viewed the role of its buffer states. Any fighting was always intended to take place in the buffer states. Putin’s mindset is that of a KGB agent in East Germany in the Cold War. He has never changed. If you are not over 65, you probably don’t have that institutional memory of the Cold War and don’t equate Russia with the former Soviet Union. It was obvious that the push into Ukraine happened because it wasn’t a member of NATO. Politicians who hark back to non-existent, so-called “golden ages” of whatever form are always dangerous.’

Might one day a diplomatic settlement rule out prosecutions for war crimes? ‘Whatever happens diplomatically there is no way Russia can contract out of having committed war crimes.’

He teaches international criminal and humanitarian law worldwide. No surprises as to his careers advice to students. ‘If an opportunity comes along to do something different and it looks interesting, do it. Life would have been far more mundane if I had not stepped outside my comfort zone.’ 

* Since our interview, to Sir Howard’s surprise and disappointment, Iryna Venediktova has very recently been replaced by the President of Ukraine. Sir Howard is of the view that she had made great progress in a short space of time in the face of increasing Russian aggression and waits to see if their progress can be continued under any newly appointed Prosecutor General. In any event he remains determined to continue to assist Ukraine in bringing all perpetrators to justice in Ukraine or in an international jurisdiction.

Sir Howard was a trial judge in the case of Radovan Karadzic (pictured above) at The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
© Ramon van Flymen/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Iryna Venediktova, the former Ukrainian Prosecutor General, is pictured (L) with Karim Khan QC (R), Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.