Ian Macdonald QC 1939-2019

Friday 15 November 2019

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The death of Ian Macdonald QC, a barrister notable as a pioneer of committed anti-racist legal practice, was announced on 12 November 2019. Ian’s death occurred while on holiday with his family.  

Ian was born in Glasgow, studied at Cambridge University and was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1963. He joined what was to become Garden Court Chambers in 1974 and was later Joint Head of the London-based Garden Court Chambers and Head of Manchester’s Garden Court North Chambers, which he helped to set up.  He became a QC in 1988 and in his later career was made a Bencher of the Middle Temple and was awarded Honours as a Grand Knight of the Order of Liberty (Portugal).

As shown in the many laments for his death, he was held in very high esteem as an activist, practising trial and appellate lawyer, an academic and author of seminal legal texts.

Ian’s reputation as a successful trial lawyer was forged in the 1970s and 80s in the high profile Mangrove Nine, Angry Brigade, and Balcombe Street siege trials, in his representation of families of those who had died in the Deptford fire and in the Black Parents Association and students’ association cases in London and Manchester. These trials challenged, amongst other matters, the unrepresentative composition of juries, police harassment of the black community and its spokespeople, the many racial injustices in housing, policing, prosecution and immigration decision-making and unfair trial and prosecutorial procedures.

These were hard fought trials, which exposed and forced reforms within the criminal justice system. As to Ian’s role - activists and defendants in the Mangrove trial who attended Ian’s recent 80th birthday party spoke with great feeling of his willingness to listen to them and to respect and present their accounts of mistreatment and injustice, as state attempts to crush black resistance. After 55 days at the Old Bailey, the Mangrove Nine were acquitted and forced the first judicial acknowledgment that there was "evidence of racial hatred" in the Metropolitan Police.

Ian’s role in these politically charged trials was as part of a core of radical, politically committed lawyers. Comments on his death describe Ian as "a unique & radical lawyer (in truest sense of word)",  "true legal legend" and a "leading figure" in the anti-racist movement. The late legal correspondent for The Times, Marcel Berlins,  in 1999 described this "radical Bar" as “a loose but identifiable band of brothers and sisters”, who were “fearless in putting their often unpopular views across, and it was their badge of honour to be criticised intemperately by others in the legal system.” Ian was a prominent member of this band. He loved recounting his battles with the establishment - particularly the story of when he applied to become a QC, and the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham is reputed to have said "Over my dead body!". Lord Hailsham died in 1987, and Ian finally took silk in 1988.

Ian’s legal work included a wider focus on racial and migrant injustice and he was a key, active critic of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which curtailed the free movement of Commonwealth citizens. He was a member of a small group of Society of Labour Lawyers and of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) legal group, which helped draft proposals for race relations law in the United Kingdom. He authored some of the first practitioner texts on anti-discrimination and anti-racist laws. His concern for justice led him to activism in the anti-apartheid movement as well as close collaboration with black feminists and educationalists, and with trades unionists in defence of workers’ rights.

In 1987 Ian chaired the Burnage Inquiry into the death of 13-year-old Ahmed Iqbal Ullah in a Manchester playground in 1984. His widely proclaimed report was published in book form under the title Murder in the Playground. In 1998 he was leading counsel for Duwayne Brooks in the Lawrence Inquiry, and helped to run community self-defence on behalf of young Asian clients, who mobilised to resist attacks by racist mobs on their community in Burnley in 2002.

In the 1980s Ian’s community work led him into immigration law practice as a campaigning and appellate lawyer and as the author and later editor of the textbook which became Macdonald’s Immigration Law and Practice, now in its 9th edition and widely credited as "the immigration practitioners’ bible". This is the essential legal text on this ever-changing complex legal area. One of the lawyer tributes to Ian noted of this text, “Macdonalds was much more than a tool. It was the foundation of our credibility before those judges uncomfortable with - or downright hostile - to our basic claim to be at court: that immigration should be closely governed by law, and not just left to politicians”. Ian was a singular expert in this field and was counsel in some of the leading immigration appeals establishing and extending migrant rights and protections.

Ian was among the first barristers appointed as a Special Advocate to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, SIAC, in 1997, but he resigned in 2004 in protest at indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial, calling it “fundamentally flawed and contrary to our deepest notions of justice”.

In the many tributes sent to Garden Court following his death Ian is consistently remembered as incredibly kind, generous and straight talking, as always willing to help other lawyers, and supportive to younger advocates. Ian’s contribution is summed up in this way –“his sense of fairness was contagious.”

Ian is survived by his wife Brigid, his four sons Ian, Jamie, Kieran and Cameron, and five grandchildren. He is mourned by many. 

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