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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Steeped in history and ceremony, I was in awe as I entered the House of Lords. What are the protocols for greeting a lord, I thought. But it was too late, I had arrived at the office of Lord Hoffman.
"Good afternoon, lord," I exclaimed.
"Welcome," he replied. "And please call me Lennie."
I was greeted with a warm smile that created a relaxed atmosphere so had no qualms confidently turning down a cup of tea, part of the great British tradition and not something easily done.
The House of Lords, in addition to having a legislative function, has a judicial function as a court of last resort limited to the hearing of appeals from the lower courts in the UK. Lord Hoffman is a senior judge serving as lord of appeal and a life peer. He is one of 12 law lords and is an expert in intellectual property law.
He will be guest of honor at the seventh annual Israel Bar conference which runs from May 27 to 31 in Eilat. The conference is deemed one of the most prestigious events of the year for the legal community, with senior legal personalities such as the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney-general, senior judges and lawyers, ministers, important journalists and experts in law from around the globe all descending on the resort.
Lord Hoffman was born in Cape Town. His grandparents were Eastern European Jews who arrived in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. He describes his parents as "likely" observant Jews - "They went to synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and had a Seder but not much else."
His father was chairman of the Cape Town Zionist Federation, and made several visits to Israel around the time the state was founded. Lord Hoffman said he had less interest in Zionism as his attention was focused on getting into university in England.
He was educated at Cape Town University and then at Queen's College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1957 he went back to South Africa and got married in Cape Town Synagogue. He came back to England with his wife, Gillian, in 1960 and he went to teach law at Oxford University until moving to London in 1973 where he became a barrister. He was appointed a judge in 1985.
Lord Hoffman was a judge in the High Court for seven years, then the English Court of Appeal for two years and has been a law lord since 1995. He is also a non-permanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. So once every two years he goes to Hong Kong for a month and sits as a judge.
Becoming a law lord is a little like becoming chief of staff in that there is no further progression. "There is nowhere else except for retirement, which happens in two years time - you have to retire at 75," he said.
Now knowing his age, I was taken aback as to how well he looked, considering what seemed a demanding and rigorous job, so I asked him his secret.
"Cycling. I cycle to work and back. When I finish here I'll get on my bike and cycle back to Hampstead." It's about an 18-km. round trip each day.
OUR DISCUSSION turned to the country he was about to visit.
"As a Jew, I have a concern about the future of the Jewish state, and the way things are going just makes me feel extremely sad and concerned about the people living over there, the Jews and the Palestinians," he said.
In December 2004, the House of Lords ruled that the provision authorizing the detention of suspected terrorists indefinitely without trial violated the European Convention on Human Rights Laws and was discriminatory because it applied only to foreigners.
At the time 11 suspects were being held under the policy, five of whom had been in custody for nearly three years. Lord Hoffman said at the time: "The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. It is for Parliament to decide whether we will give terrorists such a victory."
But he told me: "Although we've had terrorism here, we are nothing like the position of Israel and the courts there approach it from a different perspective.
"In the judgments of the Israeli Supreme Court that I've read, I've been full of admiration for the way in which they have tried on the one hand, as one American judge said, not to read the constitution as a suicide pact, but on the other hand to preserve as much of the rule of law and human rights as they can. It's an extremely difficult thing to do.
"I'm not suggesting they have got the balance right, but as far as the court is concerned they have been trying in good faith to get it right."
He said the Supreme Court has a much wider work load than the House of Lords, the final court of appeal in the UK. "It's similar to the Israeli Supreme Court. They have around 15 justices and they have a far bigger work load then we have because we choose what cases we hear, like the Supreme Court in the US. We hear around 150 cases a year, the Israeli Supreme Court has thousands of cases as they can't pick and choose. There's a right to appeal to them and in some instances they are the very first court. It's the only court of jurisdiction, you don't come up from the lower court," he explained.
He was impressed with the fact that the Supreme Court (sitting as the High Court of Justice) hears original applications from Palestinians affected by the route of the security barrier. "We would never have that here; an original application would start the lower court. This gives us the opportunity to sift out the important cases," he said.
With the possibility of a motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions rearing its head at the annual conference of the University and Colleges Union later this month, I asked him his thoughts on the idea of a boycott.
"My view is that what ever you may think of Israeli government policy, boycotts are misguided [and] usually affect the wrong people. An academic boycott seems to be contrary to the whole spirit of free speech and discussion, and what I admire about Israel is the openness of discussion you can have there."
He's seemingly knowledgeable about the dynamics of Israeli society. "You certainly get a lot of opinions; the two words you never hear in Israel are 'no comment,' everyone has opinions."
He then remembered a trip to Israel six or seven years ago when he gave a lecture at the Hebrew University. "I liked the high level of discussion and passion about politics. It's very exciting; you meet a lot of very intelligent people; they've all got their own points of view and are not hesitant to tell you about them."
Moving on to issues closer to London, we talked about the European proposal to make Holocaust denial a criminal offense.
"I think the trouble is that if you prosecute people, it enables really horrible people to wrap themselves in the flag of freedom of speech and call for sympathy from juries, not necessarily to agree with their views but to support their right to say what ever they like. My view is that it gives them a public platform at their trial, it gives them publicity in the most favorable way that such awful people could possibly get, which is to put them on the side of human rights and free speech."
RECENTLY, LORD Hoffman was in the limelight when he ruled on a case involving the wedding of American actor Michael Douglas to British actress Catherine Zeta Jones in 2000. A celebrity gossip magazine - called Hello! - had printed photos of the wedding, that were taken by somebody pretending to be a guest or a waiter, when OK! magazine had paid the couple 1 million for the rights to the event.
Lord Hoffman said OK! was entitled to expect that guests and staff would not breach its exclusive rights to publish photographs of the wedding. "Some may view with distaste a world in which information about the events of a wedding... should be sold in the market in the same way as information about how to make a better mousetrap, but being a celebrity or publishing a celebrity magazine are lawful trades and I see no reason why they should be outlawed from such protection as the law of confidence may offer."