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An interview with Sir Vivian Ramsey: Part 1/3 – getting personal

Until November 2014, Sir Vivian Ramsey was a High Court judge and had been the judge in charge of the TCC. Interestingly, he was also the judge with responsibility for overseeing implementation of the Jackson reforms. He has recently joined the Singapore International Commercial Court.

Sir Vivian graduated with a degree in engineering science from Oriel College, Oxford, and then worked as a civil engineer for Ove Arup, in London and Libya. He joined Keating Chambers in 1981 and had a meteoric rise, being appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1992, taking up the role as Head of Keating Chambers in 2002, and being appointed to the High Court in 2005 (the year in which he was also voted Construction Silk of the Year).

Beverley Barton, an editor in the Practical Law Dispute Resolution team, was delighted to have the opportunity to put some questions to Sir Vivian. In Part 1, he talks about his career and interests. In Part 2, Sir Vivian gives some perspectives on recent legal developments. Finally, in Part 3, he considers what the future might  hold for civil litigation in England and Wales.

Why did you decide to be a lawyer? I’m sure that our subscribers would be interested to know, particularly as you started out as an engineer.

Like a lot of people, I specialised in maths, physics and chemistry, at school. In the days when I qualified, converting that into an ability to do law was quite difficult.

At school, I thought of going to do law but I was pushed in the way of engineering, thankfully.

When it came to finding a job, I thought I might change to law at the end of my engineering course. But, again, I was persuaded to go on to become an engineer.

It was only really when I was on site in Libya that I had time to reflect on my future career.  Because I had always had an interest in law – and with the help of the funds I had managed to amass while working  in Libya – it was then that I made the decision to make the changeover to become a lawyer.

Were there benefits from having that previous experience as an engineer?

I think that having the skill, at the age of 25, of supervising major civil engineering projects, in Libya, gives you a slightly different insight into life than perhaps the traditional lawyer.

It was a useful experience to come to the Bar as a more mature student, although I have to say that that is a more difficult route these days.

The other side of it was that, having a civil engineering background, it was quite easy to persuade clients from civil engineering companies that perhaps they should seek my advice rather than others’. Therefore, it helped, as I knew all the terms, could read a drawing and a specification and so on.

What are your interests outside the law?

Well you have to quote interests in “Who’s Who”, and mine are vineyards and building renovation. I established a vineyard in England some years ago. It has not been a great success so far, I have to say, but we will see how it fares in my retirement.

I have also taken an interest in building projects and building renovations, and have just refurbished our house in France.

No grapes there – just a lake!

Everyone likes to know about people’s early experiences in their careers. As a junior barrister, did you have any tricky or embarrassing moments?

You always remember your first case. Mine was in Brentford County Court and was a consent possession which should have gone absolutely straightforwardly. I read up all the papers and was told that all I had to do was stand up and ask for the “usual consent order”. I stood up and asked for the usual order, but the judge said that he was not convinced that the people against who the order was sought were all over 18. As a result, I spent all day finding out the ages of the defendants in this case (as, if they weren’t over 18, you needed them to act through a guardian). That was a difficult one.

I think my most embarrassing was one where, on a civil engineering project, my client’s case was that, at a meeting, they had agreed a programme for the project. This was the whole basis of the case. We called the only witness who was present at the meeting who had said in a very full statement that he had agreed the programme at the meeting.

Of course, my first question to him was: “Were you at a meeting on this particular date?”.  And he said “Meeting? I can’t remember that.”  After another few times asking him if he recalled any discussions about programming or anything at a meeting, he couldn’t remember anything. I therefore could not argue any sort of case that a programme had been agreed at the meeting. Now with written witness statements the position would be different.

And now quite a broad and difficult question I guess, based on your whole career as a judge. What was the most interesting judgment you gave? Can you choose one?

I think that if you do a google search it comes up with an anonymous case I did involving an injunction against people “bit torrenting” (a means of multiple uploading and downloading of files) photographs from a camera which had been stolen. The photographs were ones that a girl had prepared for her boyfriend and were highly salacious, and had got into the public domain. The problem was that they attached to her name, and by the time they were published, she was a director of a large public company. When you googled her, up came these photographs.

The injunction worked. We had email addresses we could use and other ways of publicising the judgment. The bit torrenters suddenly stopped.

I think my other one has to be my BSkyB v Hewlett Packard case – still, I think, the longest running case of modern times, which lasted over a year, to deal with an IT system for a contact centre for BSkyB.

If you had to choose one “icon” of the English legal system, who would you choose?

I think it would probably be Lord Bingham. He is certainly one of the judges who one always looks to his judgments both at first instance right through to the House of Lords.

What is interesting is the number of times he dissented, and it is his dissenting judgment which is relied upon. I think that shows a particular alertness to some of the underlying issues which arise in cases. He was a pleasure to appear in front of: polite and incisive in the questions that he put to you.

What would you pick out as the highlight of your career as a High Court judge?

There are many highlights in life as a High Court judge.

Obviously, it is a privilege to sit there and be able to give judgments, or to preside over large criminal trials. Dealing with both serious crime on one hand and important matters, on the other, is always of great interest. And cases like BSkyB were a great privilege to try.

Other highlights include the special occasions such as appearing at the opening of the legal year and parading from Westminster Abbey, and the State opening of Parliament and sitting there on the woolsack. One problem in our year, was that, at the time, there was a concern over peers taking cash for questions or cash to alter legislation.

One of the major newspapers had a picture on the front page asking “Would you trust these people?”. The only trouble was that it was a picture of the High Court judges sitting on the woolsack, rather than the members of the House of Lords.

Do join us in Part 2 of this series, where we ask Sir Vivian for some perspectives on recent legal developments.

Practical Law Dispute Resolution Sir Vivian Ramsey Beverley Barton

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