Brick Court Chambers was founded in 1921 by William Jowitt KC, later Lord Chancellor. Its rise to prominence was notable in the 1970s as shipping and international trade litigation increased exponentially. Notable members of chambers included Robert Alexander QC (later Lord Alexander of Weedon) and Nicholas Phillips QC (later Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the first President of the Supreme Court) who were widely regarded as among the most consummate and able lawyers of that period. Under the watchful eye of the renowned senior clerk, (Ronald) Burley, Brick Court became one of the leading commercial chambers in London. Burley became senior clerk at the age of 25 after WW2, a position he occupied for more than 40 years, and chambers owes as much to him for its meteoric rise as to its stellar members.
Rather than limit practice only to these areas, members of chambers' advocacy skills were also turned to defamation, media, sports and tax as well as to disputes between some of the most colourful businessmen of the day, Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland.
The 1980s and 1990s saw City deregulation and the rise of EEC (now EU) Law, the consequences of which practitioners embraced. City disputes such as Lloyd's reconstruction and renewal, BCCI and British and Commonwealth were undertaken by Brick Court barristers. In EU Law members of chambers began to change the legal landscape with Factortame and the B&Q Sunday Trading litigation. Our combined expertise in EU, public/constitutional law and commercial law equips us particularly well to negotiate the legal issues thrown up by Brexit.
One of the factors in our continued pre-eminence is our ability to recruit the most able and talented lawyers of their generation. We pride ourselves on a rigorous and testing pupillage period to ensure that not only are we delivering excellent legal skills, but by individuals who excel in advocacy and are responsive to the needs of modern clients.
A more detailed timeline history of Brick Court, by Sir Sydney Kentridge QC and Jonathan Hirst QC, can be found below:
In 1921 William Jowitt, newly appointed a King’s Counsel, took chambers of his own at 1 Brick Court in the Middle Temple. During the following decade he was in effect the leader of the Commercial Bar in London and attracted to his chambers such rising stars as Cyril Asquith (later Lord Asquith of Bishopstone) and Donald Somervell (later Lord Somervell). Jowitt’s life at the Bar and the fortunes of 1 Brick Court changed suddenly in 1929. In the general election of that year he stood successfully for parliament as a Liberal party candidate. That election brought Ramsay Macdonald’s second Labour government into power. Macdonald had at that time little in the way of legal talent in his parliamentary party. He invited Jowitt to become his Attorney-General, and in June 1929, only a few weeks after his election as a Liberal MP, Jowitt crossed the floor and became the Labour Attorney-General. His acceptance of office aroused considerable public criticism, some of it from his own profession. But he was not a man much moved by public opinion. According to the parliamentary convention of the time he resigned his seat, stood again at the by-election and was re-elected as a Labour member with a comfortable majority.
The chambers at 1 Brick Court apparently went into limbo during Jowitt’s period of office. Asquith and Somervell had moved to other chambers. Some of Jowitt’s biographers have said that they removed themselves as a reaction to his political turnabout. But a reliable contemporary account suggests that the other members had previously left because they could no longer tolerate Jowitt’s clerk – an eccentric gentleman whose main function (according to the same contemporary account) seemed to be to insult the solicitors.
When the National Government was formed at the end of 1931, Sir William Jowitt returned to his old chambers and his old clerk. He had a set of four rooms at 1 Brick Court, one for himself, one for his private typist (an unheard of extravagance in chambers at the time), one for the clerk and (also unheard of) a waiting room. The solicitors of the time were not used to such luxury and preferred to stand outside Sir William’s door until the great man was ready to see them. The waiting room stood empty until Jowitt invited a bright young junior, Patrick Devlin, to join him and to occupy the vacant room.
During the 1930s Jowitt, while retaining his pre-eminent position at the Commercial Bar, became one of the very few counsel in demand for any case in which money was no object. In accordance with what was then acceptable practice, he was prepared to take two or even three cases on the same day. He might open a case in one court, and then go off to cross-examine an important witness in another. He might or might not return to do the closing speech. The instructing solicitors, more tolerant then than now, accepted a special scale of fees devised by his clerk. For the ordinary cases the ordinarily handsome fee, but for cases to which he undertook to give “his undivided attention”, a specially increased fee.
Jowitt remained in chambers until, in 1940, he became Solicitor-General in the wartime coalition government. After the war, he became Lord Chancellor in Clement Attlee’s government. He was created a Viscount in 1947 and an Earl in 1951.
Patrick Devlin remained in practice at 1 Brick Court doing part-time work at the Ministry of Supply and, later, becoming standing Counsel to the Ministry of War Transport. After the war others joined him, Colin Pearson, Sam Cooke, Charles Fletcher-Cooke and Otto Khan-Freund (later Professor of Comparative Law at the University of Oxford). The old clerk had disappeared and a new and competent senior clerk had been employed. He in turn found a new junior clerk to cope with the growing work, in the person of a young man recently de-mobbed from the RAF with the rank of Flying Officer. By that time the chambers occupied the whole of the ground floor of 1 Brick Court.
Early in 1948, Lionel Hawkins, the senior clerk, moved upstairs to another set of chambers on the 1st floor (then and now the leading libel chambers in the Temple and now occupying the entire building). Devlin invited the junior clerk, Ronald Burley, then aged 25, to become the senior clerk. Burley remained senior clerk for over 40 years until his retirement. Through the considerable changes in the following years, Burley provided continuity, and under his watchful and discerning eye chambers steadily grew and developed.
After Patrick Devlin went to the High Court Bench in 1948 and subsequently became a Law Lord, Colin Pearson KC and David Karmel KC were successively Heads of Chambers. Colin Pearson was appointed to the High Court Bench in 1951 and rose to become a Law Lord and also Treasurer of the Inner Temple in 1974. Sam Cooke QC for many years maintained the commercial practice built up by Jowitt and Devlin. He became Head of Chambers on Karmel’s retirement. When he went to the High Court in 1967, he was succeeded by Philip Owen QC, Leader of the Wales & Chester Circuit, who remained Head of Chambers for 23 years.
The 1950s and 1960s were lean years for the Bar in general and the Commercial Bar was not excepted from the famine. The end of the 1960s brought a marked upturn in work and coincided with the arrival of some exceptionally able juniors who thrived in chambers and set it off on a new trajectory. Robert Alexander joined from Western Circuit Chambers in 1966 and Nicholas Phillips from 2 Essex Court in 1970. Other distinguished joiners were Robert Gatehouse (later Mr Justice Gatehouse), Roger Buckley (later Mr Justice Buckley), Nicholas Lyell (Attorney-General in John Major’s Government and ennobled as Lord Lyell of Markyate), Christopher Clarke, and the first female tenant, Hilary Heilbron.
Commercial work started to expand exponentially and chambers recruited steadily, mainly from its pupils, to provide the number of juniors needed to do the work and to support the leaders. New recruits included Richard Aikens (later Lord Justice Aikens), Peregrine Simon (now Lord Justice Simon), Jonathan Hirst, Jonathan Sumption (now Lord Sumption, Justice of the Supreme Court), Paul Walker (now Mr Justice Walker) and, most notably, Sydney Kentridge SC from South Africa, now Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, who appeared in the Supreme Court on his 90th birthday.
In the meantime, David Vaughan QC established a new area of practice for chambers in European Community and competition work. The new venture was a great success, and he was soon joined by Gerald Barling (now Mr Justice Barling), and then by Nicholas Green (Chairman of the Bar of England & Wales in 2010 and now Lord Justice Green), David Anderson (Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation 2011-17, now Lord Anderson of Ipswich), Jemima Stratford, Marie Demetriou and Kelyn Bacon. This led to an expansion into public international law when David Lloyd Jones joined chambers as Dean of Downing College, Cambridge – he is now Lord Lloyd-Jones, Justice of the Supreme Court.
Robert Alexander, by then Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, left chambers in 1989 to become Chairman of NatWest Bank. He was Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales in 1985-86 and Treasurer of the Middle Temple in 2001. Nicholas Phillips was appointed to the High Court Bench in 1987 and became successively Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, the Senior Law Lord and first President of the Supreme Court. He is now Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers KG.
In 1990, Philip Owen retired and Christopher Clarke QC became Head of Chambers. Burley also (reluctantly) retired in 1991. His replacement, Douglas Neave, served a short term and, in 1996, Julian Hawes and Ian Moyler were appointed as joint senior clerks. The growth of chambers placed immense pressure on the space available, and in 1990 chambers took over 18/19 Devereux Court which housed the clerks, the administration and the greater number of the members of chambers – but soon grew out of this building and, in 1998, the whole of chambers moved to 7-8 Essex Street, the building previously occupied by Macmillan, the publishers. This entailed surrendering the lease of 1 Brick Court, which chambers had occupied continuously from 1921. However, to preserve its long association with its old home, it became known as Brick Court Chambers.
Chambers continued to recruit, as well as continuing to bring on many of its pupils as tenants. Nick Chambers (later HH Judge Chambers), Mark Howard and Charles Hollander joined from other sets. George Leggatt and Andrew Popplewell were home grown and have respectively gone on to the Court of Appeal and the High Court Bench. Harry Matovu and Helen Davies are also former pupils. When Richard Gordon QC joined, a third strand of work in public law was established with Maya Lester, who had been a pupil. They were joined by Martin Chamberlain QC and later by Paul Bowen QC. The arbitration part of the commercial practice also grew rapidly and many retired judges returned to chambers to sit as arbitrators. The practice was strengthened when Lord Hoffmann of Chedworth joined.
Christopher Clarke (who has now returned as a door tenant) was appointed to the High Court Bench in 2005, having served for a long stint as leading counsel to the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. He was later appointed as a Lord Justice of Appeal and was Treasurer of the Middle Temple in 2016. He was succeeded as Head of Chambers by Jonathan Sumption QC and Jonathan Hirst QC (Chairman of the Bar 2000 and Treasurer of the Inner Temple 2012). On Jonathan Sumption’s appointment direct to the Supreme Court in 2012, Nicholas Green QC replaced him, and on his appointment to the High Court Bench in 2013, Helen Davies QC became one of the first female joint heads of a magic circle set of chambers. Jonathan Hirst retired in 2016 and sadly died in 2017. Mark Howard QC succeeded him.
In 2018 the deputy senior clerks, Tony Burgess and Paul Dennison, were appointed joint senior clerks, succeeding Julian Hawes' and Ian Moyler's outstanding 22 years of service.
Brick Court Chambers continues to thrive as a leading set at the Commercial Bar and in Competition/EU/Brexit work. There are currently 45 silks and 45 juniors.