Michel Massih QC

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in July 2010. Read more about Michel Massih QC in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Michel Massih QC of Tooks Chambers, who is the world’s first and only known practising Queen’s Counsel of Palestinian origin.

 
Michel was brought up in Jerusalem and attended the De La Salle Catholic school in Jerusalem. He came to England in 1966 aged 16 to study for his ‘A’ levels with the intention of doing a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. In London in 1966, Michel discovered his voice, lost his shyness, found his vocation and discarded his dream of being an Aeronautical Engineer in Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, London where standing on soap box, he spoke about Palestine.
 
In 1967 the Arab-Israeli War (the Six Days’ War) broke out with Israel gaining control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights and Michel’s future completely changed and he remained in England having to work to support himself. He ended up reading Law at London University graduating in 1977.  He was called to the Bar in 1979 and took silk in 1999.  
 
In over twenty five years, Michel has defended some of the most notorious leading criminal cases in the UK. He has defended in a large number of headline terrorist cases, including a number of IRA cases (including the Brighton Bombers) and the “Ricin” and “Fertilizer” cases, as well as acting for one of five Muslim students from Bradford University who, having been jailed in 2007 for downloading extremist material, had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal that possession of such material was not sufficient as there must be the intent to use it for violent purpose.
 
His work has also included extradition, gangland cases, murders, money laundering/fraud, kidnapping/extortion and drugs and important sex cases, including the leading “Date-Rape” trial.  His other defence work has included representing members of the Kuwaiti and Saudi Royal families on drug related charges.
 
Michel has appeared in a number of miscarriage of justice cases and has appeared in reported cases in the Court of Appeal and in the House of Lords. Internationally, he is instructed by Eversheds to advise the Government of Sudan on the issuance of the arrest warrant against the President of the Sudan, Omar al Bashir who is accused of war crimes in Darfur. He has also appeared in the Maldives acting for the leader of the opposition who has now become the President and is currently acting for the Syrian Government and senior Syrian officials who are being investigated by the United Nations for the murder of the Lebanese ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
 
In 2003, he famously represented seven of the nine Afghan men who hijacked a plane which they forced to land at Stansted Airport and against all odds successfully represented them in their appeal against their conviction on the grounds that they had acted under duress.
 
Known for his legendary mixture of humour and aggression, reputedly a policeman he was cross-examining was reported to have fainted during cross-examination.
 
A well known defence lawyer, Michel has been instructed on behalf of a number of families to bring prosecutions against senior Israeli officials for alleged war crimes. He has acted for the Hurndalls - the London family whose son was murdered in Gaza. In September 2009 he acted for Palestinian families on their application to the court to issue an arrest warrant against the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, for war crimes when Barak was in London which ultimately failed because Barak had diplomatic immunity.  He has acted for the families seeking the prosecution of Israeli war criminals, including General Mofaz and ex-Prime Minister Sharon.
 
Michel is a linguist; apart from English, he is fluent in Arabic and French and can communicate well in Spanish, Italian. He has a smattering of Greek and German as well. A consummate debater, including at the Oxford and Cambridge Unions as well as at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
 
In 2008 Michel was awarded the Criminal Lawyer of the Year title by the Society of Asian Lawyers. He was a founder member of the Association of the Palestinian Community in the UK and was its President for two years. In his early years he played an active part in the Society of Black Lawyers. He also sat on the Race Relations Committee of the Bar.
 
Below is our interview with Michel.
 
BLD: What was your first job?
MM: This was whenI was 17 and I worked as a waiter at the Golden Egg Restaurant, which is like a Wimpy Burger Bar. Whilst there, I was offered a chance to work for the BBC Arabic service. I worked as a freelance broadcaster and I loved it. As did my parents who could hear me in Jerusalem.
 
BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
MM: Being a Palestinian, I felt a strong sense of injustice and believed being a lawyer is how I can best right injustices.
 
BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
MM: Acting because I love it!
 
BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
MM: I can’t remember being given any but what I do remember from attending a Catholic school in Jerusalem is the great sense of giving and helping others that we were brought up with.
 
BLD: What career advice would you give to others?
MM: Follow your heart and do something you feel passionate about.
 
BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
MM: Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi because they were both able to galvanise and gather momentum for their people. Both were eloquent speakers who were able to articulate their causes and are thus respected worldwide.
 
BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
MM: Aside from advocacy, I spend lots of my time cooking! I also love debating and entertaining.
 
BLD: What are your dislikes?
MM: Laziness, lack of imagination and initiative and failing to believe in the case you are presenting.
 
BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
MM: A few come to mind: on my first mitigation at Highbury Magistrates’ Court I misread the medical report. Instead of saying the client was ‘autistic’ I kept repeating to the court that my client was very “acoustic”! When I was a junior barrister, tipping a glass of water all over my papers in the Court of Appeal.
BLD: Tell us about your professional high point(s).
MM: The Afghan Hijack case was a very high point for me.
 
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
MM: Well a murder case comes to mind - (R v Tamplin) where I defended one of the accused where the victim unwittingly recorded his own murder.
 
BLD: Any professional regrets?
MM: Not having enough time / resources to probe deep enough in certain cases.
 
BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
MM: Ensure that justice is done by freeing people from oppression.