Courtenay Griffiths QC

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in March 2011. Read more about Courtenay Griffiths QC in the Directory 

In the five years since our spotlight fell on Courtenay he has received global media attention, currently as the lead counsel in the so-called “Blood Diamonds” trial, defending former President of Liberia Charles Taylor, who denies charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Last month Courtenay stormed out of the courtroom after judges in The Hague at the Special Court for Sierra Leone refused to accept his 600-page defence summary of the case. The prosecution has argued that Taylor traded diamonds he had received for supplying arms to rebels in Sierra Leone. The trial has involved supermodel Naomi Campbell and other high-profile witnesses and Courtenay’s cross-examinations made headlines across the world.

Courtenay is joint Head (with Owen Davies QC), of Garden Court Chambers, one of the best-known, radical, largest and respected sets in the UK. He was named in the 2010 Power List which profiles Britain’s 100 most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage. He was said to be influential because “he has become an internationally-renowned barrister, not just a powerful domestic one”.

Courtenay has received Honorary Doctor of Laws from both the Leeds Metropolitan University and his home town university the Coventry University.  He graduated from the London School of Economics, University of London in 1978 and was called to the Bar in 1980.

Between 1981 and 1986, he was a Legal Assistant to the then Greater London Council’s Police Committee Support Unit and later a Revson Fellow at the City College in New York. He returned to private practice in 1986 took silk in 1998. He was appointed as a Recorder of the Crown Court (a part-time-judge) in 1999. He is also a Bencher of Gray’s Innand has chaired the Public Affairs Committee of the Bar Council – also for several years the Chair of its Race Relations Committee.

Courtenay has been counsel in some of the most famous trials and inquests in the UK and beyond, including the Damilola Taylor murder trial, the PC Blakelock murder trial, the Brighton bombing, the Harrods bombing, the Canary Wharf bombing and the M25 appeal.

He was born in Jamaica and came to the UK in 1961 when he was five years old. From a young age his inspiration to become a barrister was Norman Washington Manley MM QC, the grandson of a Jamaican slave who became a fearless advocate for the dispossessed before entering politics and becoming the first Prime Minister of Jamaica in 1955. Shortly before his death in 1969 he was proclaimed a National Hero of Jamaica. 

Courtenay has written and lectured extensively on all aspects of the criminal justice systemand has spoken on these issues on television and radio, both in the UK and internationally.

He is married with three sons and a daughter. He is a fanatical Liverpool Football Club supporter and he loves cricket, but confesses that he would fail the Norman Tebbit test of allegiance as he remains a staunch supporter of the West Indies. (The Tebbit test was a controversial phrase coined by the politician suggesting that immigrants from certain parts of Asia and the Caribbean, who root for their native countries rather than Great Britain in sports, might not be sufficiently loyal to their new country.)

Below is our interview with Courtenay in 2006:

BLD: What was your route into the legal profession?
CG: I went straight from school to university. I read Law at London School of Economics and I went straight to the Bar from university.

BLD: If you were to choose a profession other than law, what would it be and why?
CG: I would love to be a journalist.  I love the written word and also have a passion for politics.  To be able to combine these two in one job would be great.

BLD:What was the best career advice you were given?
CG:  My careers teacher at school suggested that I become a policeman.  I always knew I could achieve more than that.

BLD: What is the best career advice you will give to other lawyers?
CG:  Do not give up, even when your first application for a training contract, or pupillage fails.  Keep your chin up and become even more determined to succeed.

BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive)?
CG:  My hero is Rudy Narayan, he paved the way for minority lawyers today, and he did it with style and fearlessly.

BLD: Your professional high point(s) and why?
CG: Many, but if I must choose it will have to be the verdict in the Damilola Taylor murder trial.  Recent events have shown that if those boys had been convicted it would have been a miscarriage of justice.

BLD: What was your most famous/interesting case(s) handled to date.
CG:There are several but I find appearing in the Court of Appeal the most challenging experience now.  You have to be totally on top of your game.  If you are not then you will be shredded by three very experienced and intelligent judges.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
CG:  My family and Liverpool Football Club.

BLD: What are your dislikes?
CG:  I hate injustice and inequality. 

BLD: Any professional regrets?
CG: I have no regrets.  I think I have been blessed throughout my career.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
CG:  I would cut the United States down to size and force them to take their troops out of foreign countries.

BLD: It is a little known fact that you were to represent the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry but you had to withdraw. Why?
CG:  Illness.

BLD: Do tell us more about your background and family.
CG: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955 and we moved to Coventry when I was five years old. I have seven brothers and one sister and I am the second youngest of the nine of us. Growing up in Coventry, an area which was then not used to people of our race was tough and, put it this way, criminal law was part of my growing up in Coventry!