Sir Gavin Lightman obituary

Sir Gavin Lightman, who has died aged 80, was an outspoken high court judge known for his formidable intellect, integrity and sense of fair play. He held strong views that were ahead of his time on the benefit of mediation in preference to costly litigation, about which he wrote “there is only one winner – and that is generally the lawyer”.

In 2003, while a serving judge, he gave a devastatingly honest critique of the failings of Britain’s costly adversarial civil legal system, which he said created an imbalance between the haves and have-nots. Branding the QC system as tantamount to a “licence to print money”, he said: “At all stages in the litigation money talks loud and clear … Cases are won and lost by reason of the quality of representation at the trial.”

Passionate about ensuring access to justice for ordinary people, Lightman fought for the active management of cases by judges to control costs and make efficient use of court time, practices that are now routine.

Uninterested in pomp, he was against the practice of wearing wigs in court. His straight talking and refusal to play the game to fit into the still clubbish legal world probably ensured he did not rise to the heights his ability merited. Lord (David) Neuberger, the former president of the supreme court, who was his colleague at the bar and on the bench, recalled his “strong sense of morality and fair play” and sense of affront if a witness lied, or an undertaking was broken.

Gavin Lightman receiving his knighthood in 1994.
Gavin Lightman receiving his knighthood in 1994
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As a barrister, Lightman had a disparate range of high-profile clients, including Ian and Kevin Maxwell, the King of Tonga and Donald Trelford, a former editor of the Observer. He represented the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and was subsequently selected to carry out an internal investigation into allegations of mishandling of cash donations to the NUM. The 253-page Lightman report (1990) concluded that the union, through Arthur Scargill, had sought political and financial help from the Soviets and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, and that there had been a number of misapplications of funds and breaches of duty.

Lightman was particularly proud of having secured, in 1986, the South Bank site for Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker. The same year, as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association disciplinary tribunal, he suspended Alex “Hurricane” Higgins from five tournaments for headbutting a tournament director who had asked the player to undergo a drugs test.

Three years later, on behalf of Private Eye, Lightman persuaded the court of appeal to reduce £600,000 of libel damages awarded by a jury to Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, to £60,000, saving the magazine from insolvency.

On the bench he found in favour of the Conservative MP Alan Clark in a 1997 action against Associated Newspapers over a parody of his diaries, and in a case where he had to be given security, in 2005, Lightman found against the multimillionaire landlord Nicholas van Hoogstraten, ruling in a civil case that he had arranged the murder of a business rival who was suing him.

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Two years previously, Lightman had thrown out the DJ Chris Evans’s claim for £8.6m compensation for being sacked from Virgin Radio’s breakfast show. Demonstrating the skewering language of his judgments, he said: “Evans is petulant and given to sulking … 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.”

Lightman was the first observant Jew on the high court bench to be given permission not to sit on Shabbat or religious holidays, and is still the only one whose coat of arms includes a Hebrew motto, which translated means “Without law, there can be no peace.”

He was born in Marylebone, central London, to Harold Lightman, a chancery QC and the son of Jewish immigrants from Vilnius, and Gwendolyn (nee Ostrer), a housewife whose family emigrated from Poland and owned and ran the Gaumont British Picture Corporation, the largest UK cinema and film production company in the 1930s. Having experienced antisemitism, Lightman’s parents were determined he should be brought up as a quintessential Englishman, so at the age of two and a half sent him to board at Sunningdale preparatory school, Berkshire, where he was bullied for being Jewish regardless.

After attending Dulwich college, south-east London, Lightman gained a first-class law degree from University College London, in 1961, then won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Michigan. Before becoming a barrister he taught land law for a year at the University of Sheffield, and subsequently at Merton College, Oxford, and co-authored two textbooks.

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Called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1963, he developed one of the largest and most wide-ranging chancery practices. He practised in other jurisdictions including Barbados, Bermuda, Singapore and Hong Kong, and was made a QC in 1980 and appointed a high court judge in 1994.

After retiring from the bench in 2008, Lightman served as treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn and practised as an arbitrator and mediator. He lectured around the world and, from 2009 to 2012, was president of GEMME (the European Association of Judges for Mediation).

Gavin is survived by his wife, Naomi (nee Claff), whom he had met while showing the prospective student around UCL and married in 1965, their three children, Daniel, Esther and Sarah, seven grandchildren, and by his brothers, Stafford and Stuart.

• Gavin Anthony Lightman, judge, born 20 December 1939; died 2 March 2020



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