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David Pannick: the lawyer who makes challenging Brexit look easy

What you need to operate in the rarified upper echelons of teh legal system is brainpower. And Lord Pannick has plenty of it

    Tuesday afternoon in the Supreme Court was everything the newspapers could have hoped for. Remainers push Pannick button to slow Article 50, was the Times headline. A Pannick attack is a thing of zen-like beauty, wrote John Crace in the Guardian. 

    The sketch-writers marvelled at the fluency with which Lord Pannick QC batted back questions from the 11 justices. Unlike some of the barristers on the government side, Pannick never seemed to lose his place and never seemed thrown by a question.

    He was there to defend the unexpected victory he had won in a lower court for Gina Miller, the investment-fund manager who had challenged the government’s Brexit strategy.

    Her case, as articulated by Pannick, was that ministers could not use their inherent, prerogative powers to launch the process that would take the UK out of the EU; only an Act of Parliament would do.

    As his submissions to court were broadcast live on the television news networks, would-be barristers were advised by their tutors that here was an opportunity to watch one of the most persuasive advocates of his generation. True to form, he began with a clear, quotable summary of his argument before listing a series of logical propositions.

    As with many demanding jobs, the skill lies in making it look so easy. Experience helps: he argued 100 cases in front of the law lords before they joined the new Supreme Court in 2009.

    David Pannick, 60, won a scholarship to Bancroft’s School Bancroft’s School in Essex before reading law at Hertford, one of the less fashionable Oxford colleges. It was from there that he won a much-coveted prize fellowship at All Souls. Even more impressively, he has retained a fellowship at this most intellectual of colleges ever since.

    Called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn, he joined what was to become Blackstone Chambers and often appeared as junior to Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC. In 1999, the two barristers edited one of the leading textbooks on the new Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, Pannick had himself become a QC at the early age of 36, specialising in the growing field of public law. After winning a number of victories for claimants in the area of judicial review, he was soon briefed to defend the government of the day.

    But Pannick was not interested in becoming the government’s full-time counsel — or in the judicial career that would follow. He stopped sitting as a part-time judge after concluding that a career on the bench, at least in its initial stages, would offer him little intellectual stimulation.

    Instead, he applied for appointment as what was known as a “people’s peer”, joining the House of Lords in 2008 as a cross-bencher and making much-needed contributions to debates and legislation.

    But Pannick is far from the rarified, snobbish figure that all this might suggest. He watches television, enjoys West End musicals and supports Arsenal. A long-standing member of Radlett United Synagogue, he chairs the British Legal Friends of the Hebrew University and has a home in Israel.

    And his family is of immense importance to him. Pannick’s first wife Denise died of cancer in 1999, leaving him with three children — the youngest a daughter aged 10. It was a hugely emotional moment as he led her to the chupah for her wedding this year. In 2003, Pannick married his second wife Nathalie, an Israeli-born lawyer, and the couple have three young children.

    Because of his unrivalled reputation as an advocate, Pannick can choose the clients he wants to act for. Some pay him eye-watering sums; others pay nothing. He doesn’t win every case and can sense immediately when the court is against him. Knowing nobody could have done any better, his instinct then is to look for the next challenge, not wanting to waste a moment of his life.

    Above all, his achievements show that success at the Bar does not depend on where you come from, what your parents did or even whether you have an unforgettable Jewish surname.

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