Sir Louis Blom-Cooper obituary

Trailblazing lawyer who was a champion of prison reform and a fearless campaigner against the death penalty

In 1983, the lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper, who has died aged 92, represented Stephen Raymond in the landmark case of Raymond v Honey in the House of Lords. It established the right of convicted prisoners to have access to the courts and sue the prison authorities without first seeking the authorities’ permission.

This right seems self-evident now. But it was Louis who first saw the need to address the issue and take it to the highest level. That decision is the foundation of modern prisoners’ rights law and of the principle that the convicted prisoner retains the basic rights of the citizen, despite the fact of their imprisonment.

Louis was a fearless legal trailblazer and pioneer, ahead of his time in anticipating the future development of the law, arguing a legal point that later became established principle. In 1967, before the judicial committee of the privy council, he argued against the mandatory imposition of the death penalty on Simon Runyowa for an offence of attempted arson in a time of emergency in Southern Nyasaland (now part of Malawi). In doing so, he drew on authorities from India and the US as to the unconstitutionality of mandatory death penalties, even where they were legislatively ordained.

The privy council held that issues of proportionality and the mandatory imposition of the death penalty were for the legislature and not the courts. It was not until 2002, in a case from Belize, Reyes v the Queen, that Louis’s hero, Lord (Tom) Bingham of Cornhill, delivered a judgment in the judicial committee that reversed the decision in Runyowa and its underlying rationale.

In the case of De Freitas v Benny (1976), Louis argued that the imposition of the death penalty after long delay in Trinidad was unconstitutional. Though unsuccessful in saving the life of Michael X, as the revolutionary Michael de Freitas became known, he laid the foundation in that case for Geoffrey Robertson’s successful argument in the later case of Pratt v Morgan in 1994.

The enduring value of Louis’s work is likely to lie in his campaigning, supported by astute legal scholarship, against the death penalty, his contribution to the foundation of Amnesty International and his lifelong championship of the cause of penal reform and prisoners’ rights. For half a century he was a courageous advocate, a controversial legal author and journalist, a deputy high court judge and a forthright and radical chairman of numerous public inquiries and bodies. A man of extraordinarily wide intellectual interests, he was generous in his encouragement of younger lawyers and his availability and accessibility to his many prisoner clients.

Louis Blom-Cooper in 2015. He was a prolific, informed and provocative legal journalist, writing for the Guardian and the Financial Times
Louis Blom-Cooper in 2015. He was a prolific, informed and provocative legal journalist, writing for the Guardian and the Financial Times Photograph: None

Born in London, Louis was the son of Alfred Blom-Cooper, a fruit and vegetable trader, and his wife Ella (nee Flesseman), who lived in Mill Hill. After attending Port Regis school in Dorset and Seaford college in West Sussex, Louis joined the East Yorkshire Regiment towards the end of the second world war (1944-47). He studied law at King’s College London, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and the Municipal University of Amsterdam, where he obtained his doctorate in 1954.

He retained a spirit of inquiry in writing numerous challenging books on the death penalty, penal reform and murder law, notably the imposition of a mandatory life sentence for murder. But he also argued for the abolition of the jury system, because it did not give the convicted offender any reasons for his conviction.

In Final Appeal (1972) he wrote the definitive study on the Lords in its judicial capacity, since supplanted by the supreme court. And he was a prolific, informed and provocative legal journalist, writing columns for the Guardian and the Financial Times, where he displayed his wide-ranging knowledge of all areas of the law, including commercial and private international law.

Called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1952, Louis was, just as in his privy council work, a visionary in the field of administrative law. In many of the landmark cases that advanced the frontiers of judicial review of executive action he played a prominent role.

He was the first to argue for the extension of the principles of natural justice or fairness to the field of immigration and asylum law in cases such as that of the American journalist Mark Hosenball, deported in 1977 as a security risk after revealing the existence of GCHQ in a magazine article. He successfully challenged the impartiality of Lord Denning in the case of Schmidt v The Home Secretary (1969), concerning US students who had come to Britain to study with the Church of Scientology, on the grounds that Denning had given rise to the appearance of bias by his past pronouncements against scientologists.

Most of all, Louis was a leading proponent of a general duty to state reasons in administrative law and made a judgment to that effect in his capacity as a high court judge. Rejected at the time as too advanced a position, the duty to give reasons for executive decisions has now been widely accepted.

Louis was head of Goldsmiths Chambers during the 1970s and 80s. Later, he threw his lot in with the founders of Doughty Street Chambers, and was always ready to treat younger lawyers as his equals provided they were prepared to argue with him strenuously.

As a chair of public inquiries, he was keen to get to the heart of the matter quickly. He examined corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands (1986-87), and the report of “Hurricane Louis” into corruption in Antigua was published under the title Guns for Antigua (1990). It exposed the involvement of the Medellín cartel, originating in Colombia, in procuring guns from Israel for military training of their mercenary forces on Antigua.

On the domestic front he chaired the inquiries into the death of Jasmine Beckford in Brent, north-west London (1985), and the abuse of patients at Ashworth hospital, Merseyside (1991-92). His lifelong interest in the treatment of mental health patients led to his appointment as chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission (1987-94). He led the way in providing for mental health patients to gain a hearing for complaints about their treatment and objections to compulsory treatment.

As chairman of the Press Council (1989-90), he supported the principle that there should be a requirement that newspapers accord a right of reply to those they attacked. He also called for a law against the invasion of privacy, introduced changes to give complainants a better hearing and speed up adjudications, and also introduced a code of practice for newspapers. But it proved to be too little, too late.

He took silk in 1970 and was knighted in 1992. In Northern Ireland he was independent commissioner for the holding centres for paramilitary prisoners (1993-2000) and represented the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, organisers of the march that resulted in the Bloody Sunday incident of 1972, at the Saville tribunal. In criticising the 12 years and nearly £200m involved in reporting in 2010 on the shooting of 28 unarmed civilians by British soldiers, Louis acknowledged that until the Inquiries Act 2005 the whole process had been taken over by the legal profession.

Popular and gregarious, Louis was as likely to have a meal with an ex-prisoner as a law lord. Indeed, on one occasion I shared lunch with him, his wife and Stephen Raymond, for whom he had secured access to the courts.

In 1952 he married Miriam Swift; they divorced in 1970. Later that year he married Jane Smither, a social worker and fellow prison reformer; she died in 2006.

He is survived by his children Alison, Jeremy and Keith from his first marriage and Martha, Hannah and Sam from his second.

• Louis Jacques Blom-Cooper, lawyer and writer, born 27 March 1926; died 19 September 2018


Edward Fitzgerald

The GuardianTramp

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