Michael Goldmeier

Lawyer and community maven who changed the face of the British weekend


He was one of the most prominent members of Anglo-Jewry, with strong ties to every major British communal organisation. Michael Goldmeier, who has died of coronavirus aged 73, was a founding member of the Jewish Leadership Council, which represents the interests of Jewish organised life in Britain, and chair of Jewish Care for five years. His communal roles were legion.

But to many people, Goldmeier was noted for something entirely different. He was the lawyer who helped bring about the Sunday Trading Act of 1994. On that traditional day of rest, shopkeepers in England and Wales opened to the sound of tills ringing, eager customers too busy to shop during the week and the unexpected roar of local traffic. It was the event which radically changed the face of the British weekend.

Sunday opening was a revolutionary act, strongly resisted by a nation to which Sunday worship and the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath remained sacrosanct. And it did indeed cause ripples in society. However, Tesco saw a change in the public mood for Sunday trading and Goldmeier, as head of litigation at Berwin Leighton Paisner (now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner), led the legal team advising Tesco on its controversial bid, which contravened the Shops Act 1950. Faced with an intense battle with the local authorities, who sought injunctions to enforce the 1950 law, and the furious reaction from unions, churches and charities, Tesco nearly backed down. It was Goldmeier who advised his client — “Stay open. Do not close your doors.” Goldmeier’s relentless defence proved successful.

Formerly-quiet Sundays were no more. Bargain-hunters and grocery-buyers now filled the shops; smaller ones remained open all day and larger ones could trade for up to six hours. Tesco and Goldmeier had changed the face of British cities and suburbs for ever.

Testy on the subject when invited to dinner parties, Goldmeier would always want to know who the guests were in advance, in case they might ask what he did for a living. According to his friend, the Labour peer Lord Levy: “Not only would he look them up, he would find out their special subject or interest, so that he could discuss that with them and have a really serious conversation.”

Michael Goldmeier was born in west London to German refugees Helen (née Pick) and Justin Goldmeier, who had helped bring other Jews to Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War. Justin’s decision to leave Germany was prompted by travelling between London and Frankfurt for his cousin’s wine business. He could see the dangers in Germany at first hand. Safely in England, he successfully sought sponsorship for his parents, brother, uncles and cousins to arrive here, while Helen was active in bringing over children through Kindertransport.

Michael and his brother David, a consultant in sexual health at St Mary’s Hospital in London, grew up in a strict, observant and cultured home. Justin, who ran a food factory, spoke seven languages and probably imbued a love of the humanities in Michael early on. At the age of six Michael could effortlessly recite a list of the English monarchs in chronological order — and he left Orange Hill Grammar School with A grades at A-level. Offered a place to study geography at the London School of Economics, he decided to switch to law in his first term. He married the teacher Philippa Yantian in December, 1972 and joined HMRC Investigation Solicitors in Somerset House, later moving to Berwin Leighton Paisner, where he represented Tesco in its commercial disputes, including shipping arbitrations for Zim, the Israeli shipping line. He was known for his dedicated work and his calm and thorough approach, no matter how complex the case.

A respect for justice was motivated by his German background and his deep Jewish roots. Accepted in 2001 as a judge of the Immigration Tribunal, he was shocked at being asked whether he had prejudices. He replied: “I am the child of refugees, how could I have prejudices?” His traditional Jewish background also inspired in him a love and respect for community work.

For five years Goldmeier chaired Jewish Care, Britain’s largest Jewish health care agency, served as trustee of the United Synagogue and sat on the board of governors of the Hasmonean High School and JFS. His local focus was London’s Mill Hill United Synagogue, which he chaired, and with Lord Levy he took part in a think-tank, organised by Mill Hill’s former Rabbi Yitzhak Shochet, to take the community forward. It was his commitment to Judaism that led him to study weekly with a rabbi. He dedicated two days a week to charity work, accepting a salary cut agreed with his partners. Residential care homes and Holocaust survivor centres soon filled his busy schedule. Abstemious with food and formal with fashion, his wardrobe sported blue suits and red ties — defnitely no trainers, T-shirts or shorts.

He memorised train timetables, a hobby which enabled him to advise his daughter on European train times for her Interrail itinerary. As synagogue chair, he made sure morning prayers conformed to Thameslink! Rabbi Schochet recalled, “He became quite friendly with many of the station managers and directors. When trains were out of sync, they knew they could expect him to turn up.”

Lord Levy considered Goldmeier one of his closest friends. In his eulogy, he described him as: “the most honest, honourable and principled man that it has been our privilege to have known — and to have had such a close and special friendship with for nearly 50 years. Friday nights will never be the same without him.”

On retirement, still full of vigour and determination to keep his mind fully active, he embarked on an MA course in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. At the time of his death he was working on a thesis about fascism after the Second World War.

Philippa survives him with their three children, Rebecca, a psychologist; Sara, who runs a school in Israel and Jonny, a property manager and his brother, Dr David Goldmeier.


Michael Goldmeier: born November 27, 1946. Died April 4, 2020

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