Sir Gavin Lightman

From Private Eye to the miners’ strike — from snooker to the Globe theatre — the intellect, humanity and sense of mischief of a leading High Court judge


Noting the contribution of extremely talented Jewish lawyers within the judiciary, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, singled out Sir Gavin Lightman as “undoubtedly one of the most eminent members. His intelligence, his integrity, his powers of reasoning, his speed of thought and his sense of justice meant even among their number he stood out.” Sir Gavin, who has died at the age of 80, was a leading QC before serving as a High Court judge.

He followed his father Harold into the Chancery Bar, but their beginnings were very different. Harold was born in Leeds to immigrant Jews, reputedly cabinet makers to the Czar, before becoming a highly respected QC and head of chambers. His mother Gwen (née Ostrer) immigrated from Poland in the 1880s.

At the age of two, in 1942, Gavin was sent to boarding school where he and his elder brother Stuart experienced antisemitic bullying. After obtaining a first in law at University College, London, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study for a master’s at the University of Michigan. He then taught land law for a year at the University of Sheffield. His ongoing academic talent remained evident in his writing — he co-authored with the late Gabriel Moss QC the leading textbook on receivership law — and in his subsequent tutoring at Merton College, Oxford. He would later be elected a fellow of University College London.

But it was as a practitioner that he made his mark. Called to the Bar in 1963, he soon developed one of the largest and most wide-ranging practices at the Chancery Bar, once attending 14 court hearings and conferences in one day. He was appointed a QC in 1980. “Gavin was a natural at the Bar,” recalls Jules Sher QC. “He was a superb advocate. He was not merely an expert in persuasive argument and cross-examination but was generous to his opponents without losing an inch of that fearless quality that stood his clients in such good stead.”

His clients were high-profile and disparate. They included Private Eye, which he saved from insolvency, persuading the Court of Appeal to set aside the award by a jury of £600,000 in damages to the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper. He represented the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. In 1986, as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association disciplinary tribunal, he suspended Alex “Hurricane” Higgins from five tournaments for head-butting a tournament director. He was particularly proud to secure for Sam Wanamaker, by his advocacy, the site for the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank.

In 1994 he was appointed a High Court judge, sitting in the Chancery Division. Fortunately, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a strict sabbatarian, who neither worked nor travelled on Sunday, was sympathetic to Gavin’s refusal to sit on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. According to the Supreme Court Justice Lord Briggs of Westbourne, “He got to the right answer with a speed and agility of mind that left his contemporaries, me included, struggling to catch up. No legal problem, however complicated, was beyond his power to explain simply, elegantly and with complete authority. His judgments will stand the test of time and become a true memorial to his unfailing sense of justice.”

In June 2003 he threw out Chris Evans’ claim for £8.6m compensation for being sacked as the presenter of Virgin Radio’s breakfast show, finding: “He has the temperament of a prima donna. Mr Evans was any management’s nightmare and, as in a Greek tragedy, the eventual outcome was practically inevitable.” The following year, in Kastner v Jason, his judgment quoted extensively from the Talmud in explaining why he preferred the expert evidence of Dayan Ehrentreu to that of Rabbi Lieberman in deciding that, as a matter of Jewish law, a Beth Din award had not created a charge over a property.

After retiring from the bench, he was Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn and President of GEMME (the European Association of Judges for Mediation). Particularly supportive of students, he chaired the education committees of the Anglo-Jewish Association and Hillel House and founded a scholarship for postgraduate Israeli students. Chairman of the UK Association of Jewish Lawyers & Jurists, and patron of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, he had a deep commitment to Israel, where he had a home, chairing the UK Legal Friends of Haifa University.

“Gavin was such an immense human being,” observed Laurence Rabinowitz QC. “I recall not just his wonderful intellect and humanity, but also his gentle, slightly mischievous sense of humour and kindness, which he showed to everyone with whom he had any dealings, regardless of rank and standing. He had an incredible reputation as one of the great Chancery silks of his generation and as one of the cleverest Chancery judges, but to me what mattered most was the natural and gentle kindness he showed to me as a young and very green practitioner.”

In 1965 he married Naomi Claff. Their wedding reception was the first kosher-catered event at Lincoln’s Inn. In its Great Hall his is the only coat of arms with a Hebrew motto: Im Ain Mishpat Ain Shalom (“Without law, there can be no peace”). He is survived by Naomi, their children Daniel, Esther and Sarah, his brothers Stuart and Stafford, and seven grandchildren.


Sir Gavin Lightman: born December 20, 1939. Died March 2, 2020.

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