Solicitor Jeffrey Gordon talks to College of Law tutor Salome Verrell about embarking on his legal career in the 1950s, and his pivotal role in establishing the principal of ‘McKenzie Friends’, volunteers who assist litigants in person in court…
How did you choose law as a career?
I started in the law 61 years ago. I was in the sixth form studying the sciences, which I wasn’t terribly good at, but my parents had a misguided idea I would make a good doctor. At the time, a family friend was articled to a solicitor and, because I was interested in politics and constitutional matters, I felt law would be of interest to me. I saw a movie about a solicitor’s office and it looked like fun.
Tell us about your training contract…
It was with a law firm in Soho. It was wonderful in retrospect, because the firm had worked for the local Westminster Council since it started in 1901 and they did prosecutions regarding food, drugs and brothels. Very exciting for a 17-year-old! I did some work for the Food Control Committee where you prosecuted people for selling food off the ration or at a controlled price. From the start, I was going to court with a barrister, and I met and saw all sorts of famous characters of the era. Training contracts lasted five years in those days and were unpaid – and certainly where I worked, we weren’t given a lot of work to do. During my articles, I went to university to read law as an evening student on what is now called ‘day release’.
What were salaries for newly-qualified solicitors like in those days?
My supervisor said I’d be paid £500 a year, which is more than I was worth, but he felt it was wrong to pay a professional man less. I got paid £17 in my first week after tax and thought how could one possibly spend so much in a fortnight?
What was it like appearing in the Magistrates Court at that time?
Magistrates were much tougher and crueller than today. On one occasion, a prosecutor opened a case by referring to me as ‘my learned friend Mr Gordon’, and the magistrate said ‘he is not learned, he is a solicitor’! Another time, I made the mistake of quoting from a law book by a living author, and the magistrate said ‘he’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not dead’! Point was, until the late 60s/early 70s, you couldn’t cite the work of a living author. They had no authority – only law reports had authority.
What was the dress code for appearing in court?
In my early days, articled clerks had a uniform – a Bowler hat, black jacket and pin stripe trousers – which every barrister wore and has now died out. A friend was told not to wear the pin stripe trousers on a Friday because ‘on Friday one goes to the country and you wear your tweeds’. Barristers in court on Saturdays and bank holidays would wear relatively informal clothes. Women wouldn’t wear trousers in court.
Have you worked with any famous people over the years?
I advised Tony Hancock on his first film, the one slightly based on Gaugin, where he goes to Paris to be a painter. He was so much in demand by the film companies, he could name his own terms and choice of director. I went to serve a writ on Lucian Freud when I was working in Soho – I was 17 and shy, but he was more nervous of me than I was of him.
I was asked to advise on the legal side of the Vera Drake film about backstreet abortions. I didn’t work in that area of law, but I had drafted speeches for the prosecution and defence and could describe the court room dress etc.
I also met Rosa Lewis, the woman who robbed the rich to pay the poor and was Edward VII’s mistress, made famous by the TV series the Duchess of Duke Street. We did the legal work of the hotel she ran and I helped prepare the papers for her will.
Tell us how the ‘McKenzie Friend’ principle arose…
A McKenzie Friend is someone who can go to court as a lawyer or otherwise, to assist a litigant to present his case and can sometimes be asked to speak.
The McKenzie Friend principle arose when I was running my own practice, which I started in 1962, in the Elephant and Castle area of London. One of my divorce clients, a highly intelligent Westminster dustman called Levine McKenzie, had his legal aid withdrawn, and I offered to represent him free of charge. I’d done this sort of thing before as my office was near London Sessions and the presiding Judge would ask me to attend to help someone in court from time to time.
A young Australian barrister employed by me attended court with McKenzie, and the Judge (who was close to retirement) said ‘who is that young man interfering with proceedings? Get out of my court!’. My colleague was ordered not to take an active role in the case and McKenzie consequently lost his case. However, the case went to the Court of Appeal and McKenzie got a retrial on the basis that he had been denied representation. That’s how the idea of a McKenzie Friend became accepted.
What have been your achievements outside law?
I have been chairman of all sorts of local political groups – I stood for the council and got in first time as an independent. I fought the first Greater London Council election and three parliamentary elections (local elections) and was runner up in two constituencies for the Conservatives, narrowly beaten by two people, both barristers and younger than me!
I have also been chairman of all sorts of legal groups:
- President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Organisation
- President of the South London Law Society
- Chairman and General Secretary of the British Legal Association
I ran as a student and continued my cross country running into my early 40s. I used to do 40, 50, 60 mile ultra races and the last race I did I came second. I also kept fit by swimming, and about 36 years ago, I caught an escaped prisoner from Balham Youth Court, which is what encouraged me to take up running!