This article originally appeared in a Covid-19 Special Issue (April 2020).

As we in the legal profession struggle and strive to keep pace with all the legal developments and practical guidance being issued in response to Covid-19, it is vital not to lose sight of the tragic human cost it is exacting across the world. Families from all walks of life, from all parts of our community and all across the country are grieving the loss of loved ones. Recently, that includes the family of Sir John Laws. 

Born on 10 May 1945 to parents who were both doctors, Sir John Grant McKenzie Laws studied at Exeter College, Oxford, before pursuing a career at the bar. After being appointed as a judge of the High Court in 1992, he served on the Court of Appeal between 1999 and his retirement from the bench in 2016. 

Sir John was, quite simply, a jurist of uncommon ability, who left an indelible mark on the common law. He is rightly known for his contribution to the development and elucidation of the principles of constitutional and administrative law, through his judgments in now-famous cases such as Thoburn v Sunderland City Council [2002] EWHC 195 (Admin). He also had an enviable ability to capture profound insights with both economy and flare. Contributing to the Cambridge Law Journal in 2012, he wrote: 

“Without democracy, law is the puppet of tyrants while, without law, democracy is mob rule.” 

Another of his celebrated judgments, this time in a medical context, is R v Cambridge Health Authority, ex parte B (A Minor) (1995) 25 BMLR 5. In that case, patient “B” was a ten-year-old girl who had suffered a relapse of acute myeloid leukaemia. A further 2-stage course of treatment had been proposed, but the chances of success at each stage were less than 20%, and it was considered to be “high risk” and “experimental” by the clinicians involved in her care. The cost of the treatment would be £15,000 for the first stage of chemotherapy, and if that was successful, a further £60,000 for a bone marrow transplant. The Health Authority refused to fund the treatment, without which the young patient had 6 – 8 weeks left to live. 

When B’s father brought judicial review proceedings to challenge the Health Authority’s decision, Laws J found in his favour. He identified various errors in the Health Authority’s decision, but most memorably, he held that “where the question is whether the life of a 10 year old child might be saved by however slim a chance, the responsible authority… must do more than toll the bell of tight resources… it must explain the priorities that have led it to decline to fund the treatment”. 

This stemmed from an analysis in which B’s right to life, as protected under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, assumed central importance. Laws J held that where that right was to be interfered with in such a profound way, there had to be a clear justification on substantial public interest grounds: 

“…certain rights, broadly those occupying a central place in the ECHR and obviously including the right to life, are not to be perceived merely as moral or political aspirations nor as enjoying a legal status only upon the international plane of this country’s Convention obligations. They are to be vindicated as sharing with other principles the substance of the English common law.” 

This was of course before the Human Rights Act 1998, and so was in some respects ahead of its time. Indeed, his decision was overturned the very same day by the Court of Appeal. However, his bold judgment, in which he eloquently articulated a clear and principled basis for a decision that was clearly motivated by a strong sense of compassion, showed that at least in a human sense, even when he was wrong, he was right. 

We are grateful for his immense contribution. He will be missed, but long celebrated, long cited and studied, and long remembered. 

Note from the Editor: The Twitter account @CrimeGirl has been tweeting a list remembering solicitors, barristers and other professionals from the justice system who have lost their lives to COVID-19.