Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 23 - Tim Owen KC

February 20, 2023 Niall Episode 23
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 23 - Tim Owen KC
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we welcome eminent barrister Tim Owen KC, a man who has been much in the news recently. Tim discusses his early career, his regular visits to Hong Kong and his many interests, which include politics, films and football. He speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. 

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter         

[00:00:32] Colin Cohen: Tim, welcome to Hong Kong and before I start interrogating you, and let me give our listeners a little background information regarding you.

You are a founder member of Matrix Chambers, highly specialized chambers in a wide practice that span the fields of regulatory matters, criminal human rights. You have been a leading council for many, many years. You have many accolades and I wanted to sort of mention a couple of them to you. In particular, you were described as Tim's advocacy is outstanding.

He destroys his opponent's arguments due to the clarity and position of his own submissions. Another accolade is, Tim is a real heavyweight, particularly when it comes to matters of National Security. He is a powerhouse with a presence that makes people sit up and listen. Welcome to Hong Kong. 

[00:01:27] Tim Owen: Well, thank you very much, Colin. I never thought I would ever hear you utter such complimentary words about me, thank you. 

[00:01:33] Colin Cohen: So what's been keeping you busy? 

[00:01:35] Tim Owen: Well on this visit as you well know, I am busy working for you on a case which is currently before the courts. We have a hearing at the end of February. And because it's live so to speak, obviously I can't really go into any detail about it, but it, it's a long running fraud trial, which you are only too familiar with. 

[00:01:53] Colin Cohen: Which, indeed I am. In any event, I'm glad you're working very hard for me at the moment. 

It's been a difficult last three years, and you have been travelling to Hong Kong backwards and forwards. How many times? I think you might hold a record for the King's council coming here. 

[00:02:07] Tim Owen: I managed to escape having to do three week session, but I've done three lots of two weeks since 2020.

So I dunno if that's a record, but it's certainly far too many.

[00:02:17] Colin Cohen: One of our last guests, Ian Winter, he did a three week session. He had to keep himself sane by playing his musical instruments. 

[00:02:25] Tim Owen: Yeah. Well, in fact, Ian obviously he was a very good friend and we are working together on this case at the moment. But yeah, Ian is a very talented brilliant lawyer. And he's also a brilliant musician and he used his three weeks in quarantine to write a jazz album. So that's pretty impressive.

[00:02:40] Colin Cohen: That's great. Before I talk about current matters, let's go a little bit into your background and I always like to ask everyone what got you into the law? Where did you study? How come you are what you are now? 

[00:02:51] Tim Owen: Yeah, well when I left university, in fact, I did a history degree at London School of Economics. And when I left, my thinking was I was gonna become, a journalist. I really fancied the idea of being a foreign correspondent. And it was sort of post Woodward and Bernstein and investigative journalism seemed a very exciting thrilling job to do.

But in the end, I got sidetracked. I started working for a prison reform group. I was a campaign coordinator for something called radical alternatives to prison. Which was an NGO that was perhaps a little naively in retrospect, campaigning to abolish the prison system.

And obviously we didn't do very well on that. But it was through that, that I became interested in criminal justice policy. I started going to the old Bailey quite regularly to watch a series of criminal trials that were taking place. Involving the Supergrass system, which the London robbery squad had adopted to try and arrest and prosecute lots of armed robbers. And I just sort of fell in love with the courtroom. And I thought, okay, plan b, not journalism. I will study law, so I went back, did the conversion course, got called to the, Bar and that's what I've been doing ever since.

[00:03:56] Colin Cohen: And when you first started in the bar, tell us a little bit about the cases you were doing. Were you straight into criminal cases or did you do other work?

[00:04:03] Tim Owen: I did pretty much everything except commercial law. I began my career at the bar at Two Garden Court Chambers in The Temple. Which was one of the sort of early human rights style Chambers.

We did exclusively legal aid work. I didn't do a single privately paid case actually until I took silk in 2000. And so I was doing pretty much everything. I was doing crime. I was doing housing, I was doing education, I was doing immigration law, civil actions against the police, and so on.

So a pretty wide range of classic common law practice. 

[00:04:36] Colin Cohen: And, I'm very interested in, you are a founder member of Matrix Chambers. And of course, Matrix Chambers was established by some very, very well known individuals. In particular Sherry Booth, the wife of the then Prime Minister.

How did Matrix all come up? How did you all set up together? What happened? Tell us a story. 

[00:04:54] Tim Owen: Well, okay. In a nutshell, a group of us who were at Doughty Street Chambers because I moved from garden Court to Doughty Street Chambers in 1995. At the urging of Edward Fitzgerald, our dear and mutual friend.

So Edward had taken silk and he and I would do a lot of prison work together. And so he thought it would be a good idea if I joined his chambers and we could do a double act, which we did for some years. But in the wake of the enactment of the Human Rights Act in 1998, a group of barristers at what was then Four to Five Grayson. Which is where Cherie was practising. She and about four other barristers in her chambers approached a number of us at Doughty Street Chambers to suggest that we join with them in setting up a new practice. Which would really take advantage, if you like, of the enactment of the Human Rights Act. And provide a bespoke expert group of barristers who had a domestic law practice, but also knew a lot about European human rights law. Which was gonna become very important obviously in the wake of the enactment of the Human Rights Act.

And so over course of 1999, there was a sort of schmoozing process, which began about eight or nine of us sitting around a dinner table grew. Over the next few months we'd have regular Sunday night meetings in secret at the Russell Hotel. Which had to be in secret, because we didn't want the world to know that Cherie was turning up to a meeting. 

She was obviously very well known by then, she was the prime minister's wife. And we managed to keep it secret. We grew to about 18 or 20 barristers, and then we launched in May, 2000 

[00:06:25] Colin Cohen: And still there today. 

[00:06:27] Tim Owen: Still there today. And we've expanded hugely. And I think most people would say it's been a big success. 

[00:06:32] Colin Cohen: And of course you have some fabulous, some great, great people in your chambers.

Claire Montgomery. Lord Ken McDonald, Phillippa Kaufman. Just a few to mention. And you have the reputation of being one of the best set of chambers in England.

[00:06:45] Tim Owen: Well, that's very kind of you to say so, thank 

[00:06:47] Colin Cohen: good. 

Now, you took Silk. At that stage it was called Queens Council. Now you have morphed into this King's Council.

And you've been at Silk since 2000. However, I'm very interested in one thing. In about earlier on in 2003, you and 11 members of your chambers, including Claire Montgomery, wrote to the Lord Chancellor's department and was fairly critical of the rank of QC. And your letter basically asked it to be abolished.

Now, what was all that about and what 

[00:07:17] Tim Owen: happened? 

Well, in fact, I completely forgotten about writing that letter until you reminded me just before we started recording. But I think as I recall that was in the bad old days, so to speak, before the Silk appointment system had been reformed into what it is today. I mean, there are plenty of people who criticized the way it operates today in terms of its cost and complexity and so on.

But in those days, and I was of course a silk myself by then, the system was very, very secret, really. It was a sort of system of secret soundings whereby people would put in an application and you would not really hear anything until you got the letter saying either yes or no.

And it was all based on the law chancellor's department, effectively taking soundings from judges in secret in effect. And so the system seemed to be very unfair or certainly not transparent. And I think that was, as I recall, what was prompting us to object to it. And the argument was, in effect, it's not creating a really clearly talented pool of people because it's being selected on a basis that's unfair 

[00:08:23] Colin Cohen: And it's sort of waiting for the tap on the shoulder and it doesn't encourage diversity minorities. And it doesn't make sure that the bar is really, is limited to a sort of small sector of people. 

But you must have been tapped on the shoulder because you became a Silk in the old system.

[00:08:38] Tim Owen: Yeah, I put in an application. In fact, my first application, I didn't get Silk. I think I applied in 98 and then got the answer in 1999 saying thank you but no thank you.

And you can ring up and ask for a summary feedback. And I think I was just, told, well you were almost there. But you weren't quite over the line kind of thing.

And again, you had no idea really what the feedback had been from those people who'd been consulted. Anyway, I applied immediately again, and I got it the next year.

[00:09:06] Colin Cohen: Yeah, I'd like to move on a little bit. You're very, very familiar with Hong Kong. You have been appearing in Hong Kong for numerous years. Hong Kong was described, in the very early days, Hong Kong is the Treasure Island. Where you come to Hong Kong and defend all the people and get a massive brief as well.

What got you into Hong Kong? 

[00:09:22] Tim Owen: Yes, I think my first case was 2007. I came over and I appeared in the Court of Final Appeal in a case called Yung Chung Pong, which was a criminal case about double jeopardy. And my opponent on that occasion was my good friend Kevin Zervos, then DPP or Deputy DPP in those days. And of course now Justice of Appeal service. 

As to how I got the brief, I think what it was was it was one of those classic lucky breaks, where Clare Montgomery, my chambers, had originally been approached. She couldn't do the case and so effectively, she put my name forward, very kindly. And hey presto, I got the 

[00:09:58] Colin Cohen: case.

Yes, and of course you have been here on numerous occasions. You've defended many clients of mine and many clients of other eminent obstructing solicitors. There's numerous of them.

And one case which does stand out, which I want to sort of develop a little bit, but you did act for, and you defended the British banker Rurik Jutting in respect of those difficult sadistic double killings, convicted in 2000 and got two life sentences as well. And I'm interested in that, because many of our listeners and many people ask me, how can you act for the most difficult, the most outrageous, the most heinous crimes as well? 

And I'm gonna get onto your podcast, which you do with Double Jeopardy. And I now know how the word Double Jeopardy comes in.

But what interests me greatly is that back in the UK right now, there was an editorial in The Times, which really attacked solicitors saying, how can you act for these oligarchs and how can you take these proceedings whereby you are trying to stop people.

It's called the so-called Slap matters. And after that he got huge amount of correspondence letters, anonymous letters is really saying, how can you act for all these people? So I'm interested as to what your views on that

 was. I know you were quite critical on that. 

[00:11:09] Tim Owen: Yeah no, I feel very strongly about this issue about attacking lawyers on the basis of who they act for. Because it seems to me to be a deeply authoritarian attitude and seriously undermining of the rule of law.

One aspect of which of course is the ability of people to be represented properly and fairly before the courts, regardless of what they may be accused of. And this level of attacks on lawyers has, certainly in the UK, greatly increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because of course, the sanctions regime has been applied very strongly against wealthy oligarchs in the UK. They in turn have sought legal representation to challenge the sanctions orders made against them. I've been instructed to act certain individuals on that basis.

And lawyers who take on this work have been singled out for attack on the basis that they are somehow lining up with and agreeing with and supporting these evil people for whom they're acting. 

And as you mentioned, you've mentioned the Slap suit issue. Slap for people who aren't aware is an acronym, Standing for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. And this is a sort of attack that's developed, particularly in the UK again recently on lawyers who act in against the media.

Or writers against publishers in relation to defamation claims or misuse of private information claims or data protection act claims. In other words, claims mainly to do with reputation as well as invasions of private life.

And again Lawyers who are linked to that type of litigation are being singled out and accused in effect of almost criminal misconduct. And I think it is a deeply sinister tendency. Of course, no lawyer should be involved in deliberately pursuing frivolous or vexatious litigation which has no proper legal basis and that would be misconduct for a barrister or a solicitor.

And the answer is to pursue, misconduct claims against any lawyer who behaves that way. it's not the job of a barrister to make up the rules. Judges make up the rules. If I act for some of the people I've acted for in the past, I acted for Rurik Jutting, as you've mentioned. Doesn't mean to say I believe in murdering sex workers. I acted in the past for Myra Hindley, probably the most hated person in Britain 

[00:13:32] Colin Cohen: Led by our great friend Ed Fitzgerald 

[00:13:35] Tim Owen: And we were challenging for Myra Hindley, the decision of the home secretary to change her sentence and the case was a human rights case. It was about whether a politician should have the ability to interfere with a sentence imposed by a judge.

So acting for Myra does not mean I believe I think it's a good idea to go around murdering children.

and it's a really, really sinister development, I think, to attack lawyers on the basis that they are acting for people whom the general public disapproves of or hates. And who are accused of terrible things. But that doesn't mean to say the lawyer agrees with them. 

[00:14:11] Colin Cohen: And I mentioned this before, we as solicitors, we are there to act. And we are a central ingredient part of the system to make sure that everyone gets that representation.

Which leads me into the next point, which I wanted to draw to your attention, which links into acting, is that the chief justice of Hong Kong and his opening of a legal year, and that was not very long ago. He made various comments, and what he said was this. He says in his speech, first and foremost, the primary role of a judiciary is to uphold the rule of law and administer justice in the strict accordance with the law. 

He developed that theme and the importance of the rule of law. And without the rule of law, the system does not work. Now, I know you've mentioned this, you've spoken about this. Your views on that, cause I know its something really close to your philosophy and the way in which you like to do work and advise.

[00:15:01] Tim Owen: Yes. I think the rule of law is one of those concepts. Or aspects of our law, which often are used in a way which doesn't make clear entirely what you are trying to say, and it can sort of mean all things to all people. I think what the Chief Justice said is obviously correct, in a separation of power system, it is not the job of judges to make the law. It is the job of judges to interpret the law and to apply the law and to do justice in accordance with the law, without fear or favour. 

And so obviously I agree with what he was saying there. What the content of law is, who makes that law, and what the implications of that law are is ultimately, of course, a political question. And so one is then back to whether the concept of the rule of law is really one which can only be applied in, if you like, countries which have liberal democratic values, in which you have the ability to elect and remove a government. Because then you have another aspect of the rule of law which is the democratic legitimacy of the laws which you live under. 

I mean the classic statement of the rule of law was set out by the great Lord Bingham, who in my view was the greatest judge of the last century. And I appeared before, him in many cases in the House of Lords before his retirement. And he set out eight principles of the rule of law. I think it's worth just stating them, and it's a bit of a long quote, but I think for people who don't know the book and what he said, It's quite useful to know.

So here are his eight principles. 

One, the law must be accessible and so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable. 

Two, questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by the application of the law and not the exercise of discretion. 

Three, the laws of the land should apply equally to all save to the extent that objective differences justify differentiation. 

Four, ministers and public officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably. 

Five, the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. 

Six, means must be provided for resolving without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bonafide civil disputes, which the parties themselves are unable to resolve. 

Seven, the adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.

And eight, the rule of law requires compliance by the state with its obligations in international law, as in national law. 

Now, it seems to me every society needs to pose for itself those questions, if you like, or ask if those principles are accepted and applied properly in their own country. 

[00:17:46] Colin Cohen: And that has sort of issues, which, Hong Kong, the Chief Justice says the rule of law is so important.

They're there to interpret and to abide by those principles. 

But what about the system. Cause you are here in Hong Kong to do our case and you're accepted to do the case we are doing, which is a complex, difficult case.

My last speaker Ian Winter, took the view that Silks enhanced and developed the practice of the bar here in Hong Kong.

[00:18:11] Tim Owen: Well, I don't want to be so arrogant as to suggest that I've got some special magical powers at all. I am personally obviously very happy that I've been able to come to Hong Kong. It's been a wonderful experience for me since coming here first, as they say, in 2007. 

And I love Hong Kong, I love coming here, practising here on the courts. But of course I accept, hong Kong could change the law. A decision could be taken here that we don't need British Silks coming here any longer. After all Hong Kong Barristers can't just routinely turn up in the UK and start practising. 

So the system, I think we all understand is a reflection and part of the unique one country two systems arrangement, and it's preserving a link with England and Wales on the basis of the history of the connection between, the UK and Hong Kong and the continuing survival of the common law system. And long may it last as far as I'm concerned, but I accept, of course that its duration depends on the decisions taken here in Hong Kong. 

[00:19:11] Colin Cohen: And of course people got to realize this, that going to London isn't just for admissions. A lot of law firms all the time are sending instructions to London's and King's Council, even senior juniors in London, to advise on paper. I know firsthand everyone does that and that enhances the strengths of the system. 

Anyway, let's move on to another topic, which I'm very interested in is your double jeopardy podcast, which is absolutely brilliant. I mean, Law and More can't reach a sort of politics and the discussions. You've had, the eminent people, you've had Dominic Grieve, Ed Fitzgerald, Baroness Hale of Richmond, David Panic. How did this evolve? What brought this about? 

[00:19:52] Tim Owen: Well yeah, my cohost, he might try and disagree with me, but good luck to him on that one. It is basically my idea. I say, I came up with it way back at the end of 2019 and I remember distinctly, I was actually in Buenos Aires airport and I sent Ken an email because I was by then a huge fan of podcasting. And I thought, well, I think we could have a go at this. 

And Ken and I, we are old friends. We've known each other for God knows how long. And I thought our views and our relationship would work well in a conversational format. Of a podcast focusing on the law and the interaction between law and politics. So that's the origin of it. Anyway, I wrote to Ken and did a little summary of what I thought the podcast could be like. He immediately replied saying, yes, let's do it. Then of course beginning of 2020 then the pandemic began. I mean, that in itself isn't the reason why we didn't get going, but I was planning a lot of time in Hong Kong in 2020-2021, as you know. 

And so we just took time, time went by. And then last year I said to Ken, look, are we gonna do this or not? He said yes. And So we began last July. We've done 23 episodes. We try and do one a week. And so far no one we've asked to do it, has said no. And it's great fun. As you are a podcaster and you know what it's like. And It's really enjoyable. 

[00:21:10] Colin Cohen: It's really good, and it's the politics, the law, and it's very hard-hitting. I quite enjoy some of the comments that are made and it really gets everyone focused on the developments, what's happening in the UK especially with the politics, the Northern eight, the matters I admire.

 So Keeping on politics, let's talk about something which I find quite interesting.

The new leader of the opposition. So Kier Starmer is a good friend of yours, and I think you've known him very well. You've co-written books with him. I think your politics are somewhat Labor. I don't want to sort of say that you're anything but. Your relationship with him, is he gonna be the great next Prime Minister? 

[00:21:44] Tim Owen: Yeah, well, as you said, I've known Kier long time, he's a few years younger than me, but we were in chambers together at Doughty Street in between 1995 and 2000, I led Kier a few times in interesting cases before he himself took Silk. And I remember talking to him before he applied to become the DPP, and I remember actually, he rang me the day before he was going to apply, and asked me whether I thought it was a good idea. And I said, well, I think it is a good idea in the sense that Ken McDonnell had just done the job. But I said, I just don't think they'll appoint another white man with a human rights record to the job. 

So, good luck, but I don't think you'll get it. Anyway, he did get it. And he was a very good DPP. And I always knew he was interested in politics and I remember having conversations with him, which he'd indicated that he felt he was sort of getting to the end of his enthusiasm for doing individual cases and he wanted to do more kind of policy work, or more political work. And he had been also the Ombudsman in Northern eight dealing with sensitive issues of policing in the post Good Friday agreement world of Northern eight. So yeah, I mean, Kier is a great guy in my view, and he looks like he's gonna be our next prime minister and he will be a refreshing contrast to the fiasco of the last few years in British, politics.

[00:23:00] Colin Cohen: A future guest on Double Jeopardy?

[00:23:02] Tim Owen: Yes, we would love it if Kier would come on Double Jeopardy. I mean, I sort of think there might be more in it for us, than there is for him, in terms of boosting our audience. Although he's a very busy man. So, we'll see. 

[00:23:15] Colin Cohen: Just moving aside into your other skills, you've been involved in movie making in particular an episode thriller called Closed Circuit. It was made some 10 years ago. You have executive producer, a new career for you? 

[00:23:27] Tim Owen: Well, yeah. I dunno about that. It didn't do all that well. I urge all listeners of this podcast to rush out and watch it, if you can. 

Yeah, I came up with this storyline and the head of working title films is a very old friend of mine, Tim Bevin. And Tim and I talked many times over the years about making a legal thriller, a British legal based thriller. And he kept urging me to come up with an idea. 

So I came up with an idea, which was based on a number of the terrorist cases I'd done and the use of the special advocate system that developed in the UK. So I thought of a plot device in which two barristers who had had an affair were both working on the same case some years later and realized that something had gone seriously wrong in the prosecution of a man accused of a serious terrorist attack in London. Anyway, I won't say anymore in case it spoils people's enjoyment should they ever watch the film. I really enjoyed making the movie, but I don't think. 

[00:24:25] Colin Cohen: Nothing in the pipeline. 

 I'm also interested, you are an avid Arsenal fan. Yes. So you must be a very, very happy person. And one of your last guests on Double Jeopardy, Lord Pannick, was mentioned, his admiration for Arsenal and then went on on a very long analysis as to why they're gonna win the league and how they have to get matters together. Your views for your team? 

[00:24:48] Tim Owen: Yes, of course. I asked David at the end of the podcast. I said, this is the most important question we've asked you so far. Will Arsenal win the Premier League this year? And he said that was the hardest question that I'd asked during the whole podcast. Well, I agree with him. We can only lose as a result of our own efforts so to speak. We are doing very well. We're eight points clear. But I fear as an Arsenal supporter who has not enjoyed glory for many years. I mean, obviously a fear that in the last act things may go wrong. 

[00:25:21] Colin Cohen: Now, quite interestingly, just to keep all our listeners updated and yourself updated. As we all know, Manchester city has now been charged with a hundred plus breaches of all the regulations in the Premier League.

Headlines are Man City hires Lord Pannick, as it fights for premier survival. And in the article, It suggested that the fees of Lord Pannick are similar, if not a little bit more than Kevin De Bruyne. Now, I'm not gonna say we know they're 300,000 pounds a week is what they are paid. What do you think of that?

[00:25:55] Tim Owen: Well, I'm sure of course that my good friend David Pannick, is worth every penny. I've got no idea what he charges or what he will charge Manchester City, who must be aware, of course, that he is an Arsenal supporter. But they must also be aware that he's also a brilliant lawyer and will fight for their corner regardless of his personal support for the mighty Arsenal.

[00:26:16] Colin Cohen: And this is a great illustration of how the cab rank rule works. You are the cab, you're coming along if you are available, and if you are got the necessary skills and the money is right, you have to take up the work. 

[00:26:26] Tim Owen: Well, I'm sure David's approach is like every good criminal lawyer. A reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.

[00:26:31] Colin Cohen: Great. Tim, it's been a privilege to have you here on Law & More. I hope you'll come back to Hong Kong again and again many times. And this has been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. 

[00:26:44] Tim Owen: Thank you, Colin. And don't worry, I will now go back to work for you as I'm required to do, full-time.