In April, Global Connection published Snell & Wilmer attorney John DeStefano’s first “Letter Home” from London. John was selected by the American Inns of Court as one of two Pegasus Scholars who visited the barristers and courts of the United Kingdom in 2012. What follows is the concluding account covering the second half of his visit.
My new commute is to Holborn, which has a completely different feel from Temple. Whereas Fleet Street was lined with legal bookstores, shops selling wigs and tunics, and barristers in transit with flowing robes, Holborn feels more like Main Street, or as they say here, the High Street. Commuters jostle one another on the sidewalks. London often feels like a huge cluster of urban villages, but here the rows of tall city buildings could pass for a New York City block. One would scarcely know that 20 paces to the north sit the walled-in, secret gardens, ringed with Georgian buildings like a New England college quad. The gardens are closed most hours of the day and guarded by a dragon effigy—this is Gray’s Inn. To the south lies another clearing too, dominated by the massive Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, which stands across from a chapel holding a great bell brought back from the conquest of Cadiz in 1596.
This new neighborhood is where I will spend the second half of my Pegasus Scholarship sojourn. My first workplace at the Inner Temple dated back to Sir Christopher Wren. The structures of Gray’s Inn have a more recent but no less dramatic provenance, rebuilt after their near-total destruction in the Blitz of World War II. Tracing the history of my new office building back a bit further, one finds that it was once home to the law firm that employed Charles Dickens as a clerk, cementing that man’s lifelong loathing of the law trade. That firm appears to be long gone, as are many of the procedural pestilences that afflicted 19th century English legal culture. (Unburdened by a written constitution, English law reform moves more quickly than our own in many areas.) Looking out the window down at the gardens, I take in the same view Dickens might have had when, as a young legal trainee, he tossed cherry pits into the welcoming hats of passers-by.
Here my work focuses on a new subject area: English media and privacy law. In America, the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan makes high-profile libel lawsuits relatively rare because it requires public figure plaintiffs to prove reckless disregard of the truth. Parliament has not limited the rights of public figures in this way. Each year, a few hundred libel actions are filed in the High Court and pursued, vindicating either the right of the media to print what it will, or the right of the private individual to his good name. Whatever the result, the English rule of shifting attorney’s fees to the losing party keeps the stakes, often enough, very high. Free speech advocates complain that these lawsuits, or even the threat of such suits, unduly chill the vigor of investigative journalism. A handful of recent lawsuits by wealthy foreigners—who purposely choose the London forum for the leverage it provides against publishers—have prompted a reexamination of English libel rules and led to various reform proposals in Parliament.
If you travel into the deepest reaches of the Royal Courts of Justice, that sprawling fairytale fortress on Fleet Street, you will find a source of less-friendly sentiment toward the press. Here, at the end of the labyrinth of passageways leading to Courtroom 73, Lord Justice Leveson has convened his inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal and its aftermath. One need not observe many hours of these hearings to understand how serious the issues under review. The ability of concentrated media forces to improperly influence politicians and police has stoked a national outrage that counteracts the modest push for more press-friendly libel laws. Shocked by the willingness of media agents to tap and invade the private lives not just of celebrities, but also of a child kidnapping victim and the families of Iraq war dead, the British public has run out of patience with journalistic abuses. Lord Justice Leveson has spent months in this inquiry and will spend more months yet, hearing testimony from witnesses, malefactors, titans, pawns and victims, in aid of an overall report and response proposal.
In America, we grow up cherishing our stake in the First Amendment, which includes a free press. The idea of calling on the government and courts to regulate what our papers print seems unfamiliar. England has not surrendered that idea, though one hardly thinks of that place, which gave birth to the liberated thoughts of John Milton and John Stuart Mill, as a repressive environment for free thought and expression. Many lawyers see America’s First Amendment jurisprudence as a point of national pride; it need not dampen that appreciation to realize, as English lawyers and judges like to point out, that we seem to be the only country in the world that follows the New York Times v. Sullivan rule.
In my last weeks of work at Gray’s Inn, I finish making the rounds for lunch in the various Inns of Court dining halls. Lincoln’s Inn Hall with its brightly painted beams seems to be illuminated by the overhanging portraits of the “fire judges,” the judges who sat without pay for months to sort out the chaos of property disputes after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The cavernous Middle Temple Hall with its double-hammer beam roof makes everyone think of Harry Potter. Gray’s Inn Hall is more subdued, dimly lit, and not altogether crowded the day of my visit. The crowd sits outside in the dragon-guarded gardens, miraculously opened to the public for just a few hours at lunchtime. They picnic among the plane trees and hordes of bright yellow daffodils. I am equally lucky to share in the idyllic hospitality of the Inns for what has proven to be a very short six weeks.