Seafarer

'This interview with Sir Anthony Clarke, Master of the Rolls, is one of a series I have written for Seafarer, the Marine Society and Sea Cadets' quarterly magazine. I have also written general articles for this publication.'

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Sea Farer
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The Law of the Sea

There's a hush in the hallowed entrance hall of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. I've just had to undergo the kind of security one expects when boarding a Transatlantic flight, and I'm waiting for someone to accompany me to my interviewee, the newly-appointed Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke.

As Tony Clarke, he was pupil of one the last century's key marine lawyers, Barry Sheen, and has worked on court cases as famous as that of the Ikarian Reefer and the Herald of Free Enterprise. As Justice Clarke he was Admiralty Judge and conducted the first Thames Safety Inquiry and an extensive inquiry when the Thames pleasure cruiser The Marchioness was in collision with the dredger Bowbelle, with the resulting loss of 51 lives.

It's very apparent, sitting on a red leather-covered bench, just how important this court is to the law of the land and how important the man I'm about to meet is. A monument to Victorian Gothic architecture, the Royal Courts of Justice building could pass for a cathedral and, with two QCs wandering down its nave-like hall, wigs in hand, it is, all at once, intimidating, imposing and impressive. There are said to be 1000 rooms within these walls and three-and-half miles of corridors, so there's plenty of time to consider its construction as I'm being guided, some minutes later, along deep-pile red carpets.

But while the building is intimidating and imposing, Sir Anthony, it turns out, is less so. He opens his door himself and his twinkly eyes welcome me into his chambers. He's wearing a curious combination of formal shirt, open at the neck, well-cut navy pin-stripe trousers, a grey woollen crew-neck jumper and slip-on shoes which, frankly, could do with a bit of a polish. The overall effect is relaxed and relaxing and, as the French put it, of a man who is happy in his skin. He obviously wants his staff, colleagues and daily contacts to feel the same. Affable and approachable, he alleges his appointment and successes are all down to being in the right place at the right time � but there is so obviously a keen mind behind those eyes, that it's hard to believe pure chance alone has brought him here. He's self-effacing and when I ask if he would consider sitting for a portrait artist he agrees that he would but can't imagine why anyone would want him to � this despite the painting that sits behind his desk of another Master of the Rolls Sir William Grant.

His biography, once he sits down to talk, gives an indication of the path he has followed, but his protestations against greatness don't quite match his standing. He is Master of the Rolls, President of the Court of Appeal, Civil Division, and Head of Civil Justice.

Born in Ayr, Scotland, on May 13, 1943, of an English father and Scottish mother - he supports England during international rugby matches but will also cheer Scotland when his home team are not playing � Sir Anthony was educated at Oakham in Rutland. Two masters in particular influenced him and helped shaped his future. His Classics teacher John Moore, and his history and English teacher Bob Duesbury, of whom Sir Anthony recalls:

"His best saying, I always thought, was that the greatest invention of the Twentieth Century was the knob that turned the television off. It's probably the greatest invention of the Twenty-first Century as well."

Latin was his favourite subject � Sir Anthony claims it has a certain logic to it, something he enjoys and considers a good thing in a lawyer, though he asserts he's not got too logical a brain.

At the age of 15 or 16 he decided he wanted to read law, and jokes that it was the trial of infamous doctor John Bodkin Adams, who murdered his patients, that inspired this interest.

"I've got no real explanation for it at all," he says, more seriously. "It was pure chance. Most of the things I've done in life have been pure chance."

He had a vague thought he would like to go to the bar and would enjoy addressing juries but in fact he never got to address a jury as a barrister � only once he had become a judge and summed up at trials.

"So it didn't quite work out how I intended," he says.

He won a place at Cambridge to read law where he was taught by the much-respected Ken Polack, the only law don at King's College, and the first there since the Seventeenth Century. The one-time bursar was John Maynard Keynes who had appointed a sea of economics professors and the young Tony was told he couldn't study law solely for three years and would have to study something besides. He plumped for the obvious economics � a subject he describes as "not academic" which has served only to help him understand the Financial Times, he says.

His career took a big step forward when, at Mr Polack's suggestion he got in touch with another King's College law graduate Nicholas Phillips, now the Lord Chief Justice. Nicholas Phillips, who had been Barry Sheen's pupil, suggested he might like to specialise in marine law.

"He said, �I'll tell you what, I might be able to arrange a pupillage for you,' and he introduced me to Barry Sheen at that very moment and Barry offered me a pupillage, then and there.

"You can see how things have changed, because now you have to go through endless interview processes and pupillage committees, write papers and all sorts," he says.

Sir Barry Sheen, who died last October, aged 85, was a "very nice man," according to his former pupil. He had served as a Royal Navy navigator during the war and had a thorough understanding of collision cases. He went out of his way to introduce the young Tony to everyone he knew and because he took silk at the end of Tony's pupillage included him in a number of key cases.

"I rather enjoyed the navigation and I very much enjoyed learning about ships and the way they operated, what went wrong and the skulduggery that went on," he reminisces.

With no marine background and no sea in his blood, Sir Anthony says his whole career was shaped solely by "Nicholas's intervention."

"I was also lucky in the meantime because Barry became Admiralty Judge in 1978 when he was 60 � on his sixtieth birthday � which is an irony really when you consider that every civil servant has to retire at 60 - but he never quite liked being reminded of that, I'm not sure why," Sir Anthony laughs.

"He then suggested that I might take silk and so I did that, or rather, I applied, and because he had left, or rather gone on, and Nicholas had gone on to some grander chambers, I got it when I was only 36 and so in many ways Barry has been a great influence on my career," he says.

He describes his period as a QC � from1979 to 1993 � as being terrific fun, and thinks youngsters considering studying the law would enjoy legal work whether they decided to be solicitors or barristers. "I think it would be a very good career for people now, even though there's some gloom and despondency about how the bar won't survive," he says. "I don't think you should be bamboozled by the wigs and gowns, it does have its archaic features, like the Royal Courts of Justice, but we like to think we're forward-looking," he says, adding later that the British legal system is one of the world's finest. "You can accuse judges of being incompetent but you can't accuse them of being corrupt � which isn't true the world over.

"And on the whole I think Maritime Law and the Admiralty Bar have led the world. I'm keen to do anything I can to ensure that continues in the future," he says.

Talking about Maritime Law's origins and its influence on the law in general, he says, many leading cases in English law have arisen from shipping cases, especially in the laws of contract and tort.

"Maritime Law has developed quite a bit since the Fourteenth Century. Certainly the practice of Maritime Law has altered with the way the operation of ships has altered. For example in the Seventies, there used to be at least one, sometimes two or three really big smash-ups in the Channel. Then they put in the separation zones, for example, on the Straits of Dover, so that it's a one-way street � it may have been unfair on the lawyer because there were rather less collisions, but it was better for the boat owners," he smiles.

"There's been a considerable decline in wet shipping cases, that's to say, things like collisions, physical accidents, ships running aground or ships colliding because the safety of ships has really improved out of all recognition. And also I think that shipping administration has improved around the world. Port State Control, which enables ports to detain sub-standard ships, is regularly exercised in the more sophisticated parts of the world, in the Caribbean, America, and so on. That has improved the standard of ships quite a bit. Mind you there are still some rust-buckets going about, cargoes still go rotten and owners still scuttle their ships to defraud the underwriters, so there's still some work to be had!" he says.

He's pleased that a number of his recommendations after the Thames River and the Marchioness-Bowbelle inquiries have been adopted.

"One of the things that was noted was that there was no lifeboat on the Thames," he says. "Now there are RNLI vessels on the Thames to provide assistance quickly."

The Teddington, Chiswick, Tower Pier and Gravesend lifeboat stations and boats were established in 2001 and 2002, covering the river specifically, rather than estuarial waters, directly as a result of his recommendations.

Speaking of the Marchioness-Bowbelle collision Sir Anthony becomes very sombre and stops after a while to clear his throat.

"The reason it was such a tragedy was the Marchioness was full of young people who were having a party," he says adding that it brought to mind another disaster case he worked on.

"I'd been engaged in the Herald of Free Enterprise case as counsel, and that again, was a shocking case because there you are, getting on your ferry and the last thing you expect is for it to capsize," he says.

"I like to think some good came out of the Marchioness-Bowbelle Inquiry," he continues, citing as examples the improved design of Thames vessels and increased risk awareness which has cut down the number of accidents and incidents on the river. He also suggested a "drink-sailing" law, similar to that of drink-driving on dry land, which didn't go down well in all quarters but which he still stands by.

Sir Anthony has plenty of tales which would make splendid after-dinner stories. His ability as a raconteur becomes obvious in the telling which may not translate on the page, but one story includes a Mersey vessel which was being taken to Antwerp for scrap. Unused to sailing in open waters, the master lost his way and grounded the boat at the foot of the Trevose Lighthouse, convinced he was by the Lizard. He stepped off the boat on to the beach, climbed a cliff and marched up the steps towards the lighthouse, much to the astonishment of the poor lighthouse keeper. Sir Anthony can also recall tales of log books being thrown overboard to avoid examination and of a case that collapsed because the wrong man had appeared before the judge. No doubt there are many more gems in the Clarke memory banks to be recounted at some future speaking engagement.

Of his future he says he is looking ahead 10 or 15 years to see how systems can be improved to make them more user-friendly and affordable to the customer. He famously told lawyers they should throw away their photocopiers. Likewise, he has great praise for the word processing capabilities of the computer, using it to write his judgements, but he is scathing about the thousands of e-mails that come with it.

At 62 he considers himself to be quite old for his latest appointment, but thinks it has been a trend to appoint younger people into the judiciary. It sparks off a small debate about ageism and whether people should work beyond 60, but concludes he wouldn't want to work beyond the statutory retirement age of 70 � though judges in theory can continue part-time until they are 75. It's not the threat of being considered out of touch that makes him deem retirement a necessity, however.

"It's quite easy at any age to ask questions that everyone except you knows the answer to. The tricky part is to make sure you don't ask questions like 'who are the Beatles'," he says, laughing.

So what does such a busy man do to relax?

An enthusiastic sportsman who eschewed hockey and squash after hamstring and Achilles injuries he still plays "geriatric tennis" and golf. He is also a keen bridge player. Isn't this just a way of exercising his legal brain I wonder?

"My wife [Rosemary] doesn't think so and she's jolly good at it. I've always thought I could be quite a good bridge player, especially if I played in the morning rather than after dinner," he says.

He's a keen reader during holidays, when he doesn't have cases to plough through.

"Mostly I read novels really. I like to read Nineteenth Century novels, I like things like Trollope, otherwise I try to read the odd contemporary novel along with a bit of rubbish as well.

It seems most appropriate that this former Admiralty Judge's most recent read was a PD James mystery "The Lighthouse."