Ian Macdonald obituary

Leading barrister who specialised in immigration and human rights law for more than half a century

Ian Macdonald, who has died aged 80 from a heart attack, was the leader of the British bar in immigration law over the past half century. His forensic commitment to equality and race relations dated back to his successful defence of the Mangrove Nine in 1970, when an Old Bailey jury rejected an attempt to frame denizens of the Mangrove cafe in Notting Hill, west London, and he was still working on immigration and extradition cases at the time of his death.

Although some of his comrades took, in time, knighthoods and judgeships, Ian remained to the end a jobbing advocate – one with an intellectual influence on the subject, through his textbook on immigration law, greater than that of any judge or academic.

The son of Ian Macdonald, a banker, and his wife, Helen Nicolson, Ian was born and grew up in Glasgow, went to Rugby school, then studied law at Clare College, Cambridge, joining the bar via the Middle Temple in 1963. He became a member of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination at its inception in 1964, lobbying the Labour government to set up a race relations board.

In 1971, however, came an avowedly racist Immigration Act with its invented category of “patriality” designed to exclude as many black people as possible. Ian turned to the study of the civil liberties implications of immigration law, a subject which at the time was disgracefully neglected by university law faculties. In 1983 came the first edition of his textbook Immigration Law & Practice – now in its ninth edition and still the leading work on the subject.

It managed from the outset to be sufficiently authoritative to require judicial respect while at the same time infused with humanitarian principles and ideas for extracting them from the common law, which was difficult enough years before the Human Rights Act. When that was passed, in 1998, a new edition of Macdonald on Immigration was soon available to guide practitioners.

In 1984 he founded the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association,which he chaired for the next 30 years, evincing, as his friend the writer Gus John has put it, “intellectual muscle and unwavering commitment to holding the state to account and defending the rights and entitlements of those whom it capriciously seeks to exclude”.

I first met Ian at the Old Bailey in 1971 – he was in court No 1 defending the Angry Brigade, former Cambridge and Essex students who planted small bombs at the Miss World contest and the like, while I was in court No 2 (the security court) defending those the state regarded as more dangerous, the hippy editors of Oz magazine charged with “conspiracy to corrupt public morals” for publishing a cartoon of Rupert Bear with an erection.

These were bizarre times and a virtually all-white, all-male, private-school bar had not developed the tactics for exposing the institutional racism in the Met, police corruption and the wrongful convictions soon to be inflicted on Irish terrorist suspects.

We recognised the need for new thinking, new ways of defending (in particular, harnessing public law disclosure procedures) and the need to build up chambers of like-minded barristers who would pool their energies to resist state oppression of minorities and journalists. Ian became head of his chambers – Garden Court – in 1975 and, together with his co-head, Owen Davies, guided its collective expertise in immigration law.

Ian was counsel in many notable cases, from the Balcombe Street siege (the convictions were later exposed as a miscarriage of justice), the Stephen Lawrence inquiry (representing Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks) and the New Cross fire inquest, into the death of 13 young black people – Ian was seen jumping on his bike to ride to the high court for urgent orders quashing the decisions of a legally ignorant coroner.

He was appointed by Manchester city council to conduct an independent inquiry into racism in local schools after the murder of a Bangladeshi schoolboy, Ahmed Ullah. The council refused to publish his report, although it subsequently emerged as a book, Murder in the Playground (1990).

In 1988, Lord (Quintin) Hailsham was succeeded as lord chancellor by the more fair-minded Lord (James) Mackay of Clashfern, whose first QC appointments were said to include “radicals”. Ian was one, his appointment to silk after 25 years being well overdue.

In 1997 he submitted to security vetting and accepted appointment by the attorney general as a “special advocate” for the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). This was a device which helped the government pretend that SIAC’s proceedings were fair: special advocates were allowed to challenge evidence that their client was not allowed to see on grounds of national security.

Effective challenge in such circumstances, as he later explained to a parliamentary committee, was difficult if not impossible without being able to talk to clients. It was never, on principle, satisfactory and when SIAC was additionally tasked to order indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects, Ian publicly resigned in protest, refusing as a matter of conscience to “provide false legitimacy” to indefinite detention, which was “contrary to our deepest notions of justice”.

This episode, in 2004, highlights Ian’s integrity. He was a gentle and amusing man who mixed easily and congenially with his clients and their supporters from community groups. Members of the immigration bar were inspired over the years by his leadership and his scholarship.

Macdonald, who was three times divorced, is survived by his fourth wife, Brigid Baillie, whom he married in 2008, and by four sons and five grandchildren.

• Ian Alexander Macdonald, barrister, born 12 January 1939; died 12 November 2019


Geoffrey Robertson

The GuardianTramp

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