‘Many people think that if they’d had a jury they’d have won,’ says John Cooper QC. He was leading counsel for Occupy London in the High Court case brought by the City of London to evict the St Paul’s camp. He also argued in the Court of Appeal for the right to continue the case there.
‘The atmosphere in the courts was great,’ he says. ‘It was very much – not that I was there at the time – the sort of atmosphere you could imagine would’ve filled the revolutionary courts of eighteenth century France but without the violent connotations - packed with different people from Madame Defarge to the aristocrats.
‘Occupy instructed me to put some really good questions to the City and the church. When Nicholas Cottam [the Registrar of St Paul’s Cathedral] was asked, “Are you giving this evidence with the church's blessing?” he said yes. That's always mystified my clients, the church saying that they were neutral and then sending Cottam to give the damning evidence which helped to build the case against Occupy.
‘A lot of the general public were supporters of Occupy. One argument was that schoolchildren were unable to visit the church - whereas a lot of schoolchildren were brought to see Occupy.
‘The dynamics of the whole thing were fascinating, between the church and the state. The irony of ironies was that St Paul was a tentmaker. The occupiers didn't aim for St Paul's in the first place – it was the police who kettled them there. If one believed in such things one could say it was the hand of God – forget Maradona, look at the iconic nature of St Paul's, surviving the Second World War.
‘There were some very quirky moments. On the first day of the High Court hearing a group of Cambridge students passed an academic letter to the judge asking esoteric points of constitutional and ecclesiastical law. And in the Court of Appeal the Master of the Rolls said he’d rather read The Occupied Times than the Daily Mail.
‘I got involved because Duncan Roy, a former pupil here at these chambers [25 Bedford Row], rang me up on 15 October and said, “We're occupying outside St Paul’s and we need some urgent legal help.” When I first took it on there were a couple of people who thought I was some sort of City undercover agent. One of the individuals who challenged me about that had the good grace at the end to apologise.’
The named defendant representing Occupy, Tammy Samede, was originally too shy to speak at meetings. ‘I wondered at one stage whether she was confident enough to get into the witness box,’ says John. ‘But she was very good, particularly in her addresses to the camera, and she’s become very assertive. She’s grown as a human being, quite frankly.’
I (this is your blogger talking) was in the public gallery when Tammy gave evidence. At one point the cleanliness of the camp was at issue, and she was challenged about a hasty clean-up organised when the occupiers discovered that the judge would be visiting.
Tammy replied coolly: ‘I would always clean my house if I was expecting a very important visitor.’
‘I’m very flattered,’ said Mr Justice Lindblom, twinkling behind his specs as the public giggled.
John says: ‘They achieved an awful lot in the High Court and came away with great credit. There was a defined amount of legal material with which to work, but as well as the black letter law argument my clients were interested in raising the principle of the occupation.’ Occupy’s entire legal team was working unpaid.
(Two of the arguments were that the City’s demand for eviction was disproportionate to the effects of the camp, and that the occupiers’ right to a protest site outweighed any need for eviction. Some witnesses wept while giving evidence, one while denouncing global warming as genocide, an issue worth having a protest camp site for.)
John says: ‘The High Court judge and the three judges in the Court of Appeal all commended the integrity and decency of the Occupy clients, which was really important because when it comes to the debate in the future I don't think they're going to have the stigma that was unfairly placed upon them of being loony lefty hippies – not that there's anything wrong with lefty hippies – but it was used as a derogatory term to distance the argument. From now on people are going to have to treat them with respect.
‘It's been a great experience with a group of people from disparate backgrounds – a broad church just as society is. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in May.’
(Events are being planned although John is not privy to that aspect of their work.)
John has just been named as one of The Times’s Top 100 Lawyers: ‘The first I knew of it was being congratulated on Twitter. There are very few genuine surprises left and that was one of them.’
Animals ‘performing’ for human amusement include zebras, lions, snakes, tigers, camels, a kangaroo and a crocodile. John is also the chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports, which campaigned for the hunting ban and helped to draft the Bill.
The conversation drifts. ‘My education was at a comprehensive school. I come from a working class background, so no lawyers in the family, and I was told when I went to the bar in 1983 that “people like you don’t become barristers.” Funnily enough it wasn’t the barristers telling me that. I must say that the bar was very inclusive and supportive, and I’ve recently been made a Master Bencher of the Middle Temple which I’m very proud of. One of my loves in life is history and it’s one of the best inns of court to be involved with for history. Shakespeare set the start of the Wars of the Roses in the garden, and the hall is a fine example of Elizabethan architecture. A table there is made from the wood of the Golden Hind. It was also the setting for the first production of Twelfth Night, in the presence of Shakespeare.'
He reminisces about acting some years ago:
‘Apparently I was a good Iago.
' “Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule;
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way. 'Zounds, if I stir,
Or do but lift this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke.”
‘That's Othello speaking – I even learned Othello's lines.’
He studies the drawings. I’ve been talking too much, not concentrating on drawing enough. Still, ‘I love your style with the lines.’