Equalities campaigner Lord Lester dies

An eminent lawyer who championed freedom of speech and equal rights


Lord Lester of Herne Hill - the  lawyer who played a pivotal role in introducing race and sex discrimination laws in the UK -  has died aged 84.

Born Anthony Lester in London in 1936 – the son of a barrister father and a milliner mother – the ex-Liberal Democrat peer would later describe himself as a non-believing Jew who remained both proud of his identity but suspicious of organised religion.

But he took part in classes with fellow Liberal Democrat peer  Rabbi Julia Neuberger in which they would speak with young Jewish children about the need to avoid extreme interpretations of pride in their backgrounds.

He spent more than 30 years campaigning for Britain to adopt the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law.

When this took place under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lord Lester was critical of the fact that the “mother of all parliaments” had been so slow in doing so.

Educated at the City of London School, he later went on to read law at Trinity College where he joined the later Leon Brittan in calling for the sacking of careers service staff who had called some students “short and Jewish with wet palms.” Their campaign failed to attract support from enough students to succeed. 

An obituary in The Times recalled how Lord Lester turned down an invitation from Israel’s Foreign Minister and instead went to Harvard Law School where he observed “there were loads of Jews," and described their way of approaching law as "transforming".

In 1964 Lord Lester had been involved in setting up the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and in 1971 he married his wife Catherine, who was a fellow barrister and subsequently an asylum judge.

Called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn he joined 2 Hare Court and took silk in 1975. 

He once told the JC:”I went to the bar partly because my father said I would be absolutely hopeless as a barrister.”

Lord Lester stood as a Labour candidate in Worthing in 1966, but was beaten in the General Election by the Conservative candidate.

One year later he  worked closely with Roy Jenkins, then the Labour Home Secretary, on human rights issues and race and sex discrimination legislation after 1974. 

Lord Lester joined Mr Jenkins in defecting to the SDP and was later made a Liberal Democrat peer in 1983.

But in 2018, he was accused of offering a peerage to a female in exchange for sexual favours. He denied all charges, and told the JC that he was "completely devastated" by the accusations. 

The Lords' privileges and conduct committee recommended he should be barred from House, although fellow peers criticised the investigation and voted to overturn the suspension by 101 votes to 78.  Instead he resigned citing poor health.       
He died on August 8. His wife survives him as do his children, Maya, a QC and Gideon, artistic director of Bard College, New York.    


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