Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The judge

Justice Steel, the Wreck Commissioner in the 2004 Gaul RFI, his term having recently expired, has stepped down from the Presidency of the Commercial Court.
In spite of our tenacious attempts, we have never managed to establish a direct contact with His Honour, as he has been very agile at avoiding us.
There is sparse data in the public domain about the life and career of justice Steel, so, for your information, we can only provide an extract from Who’s Who 2006 catalogue:
STEEL, Hon. Sir David (William), Knighted in 1998; Hon Mr Justice Steel; a judge of the High Court of Justice, since 1998; Presiding Judge, Western Circuit, since 2002; born 7 May 1943; son of Lincoln Steel and late Barbara (née Goldschmidt); [In January 1998, on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine, Tony Blair’s former mentor) he was appointed High Court Judge]; Judge Admiralty Court 1998-; Judge Commercial Court 1998-; a Wreck Commissioner for England and Wales 1982-1998; Chairman, Commercial Bar Association, 1990-1991; Member, Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct, 1994-1998; Chairman, OUBC Trust Fund Committee, 1990-1993

Mr Steel has represented the Government on a number of memorable occasions:

In 1987, he represented the Department of Transport and had conduct of the Formal Investigation into the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge. (188 lives lost with the casualty attributed to serious negligence by the crew)

In 1989, he again represented the Department of Transport and had conduct of the Formal Investigation into the loss of the MV Derbyshire. (44 lives lost with the vessel considered to have been overwhelmed by the forces of nature – not a design fault as alleged by the families of the victims)

Mr Steel’s involvement in the Gaul legal case started in 1978 when A.M. Jackson & Co., Solicitors for the Insurance Company, engaged Michael Thomas QC and David Steel to advise on the defence on the negligence charge that had been brought against the Gaul Owners and Builders.[1],[2]
In 2000, the guiding hand of fate brought David Steel once again at the epicentre of the Gaul saga - this time as Wreck Commissioner in the Re-opened Formal Investigation (RFI).
The victims’ families - I have been informed - as if possessed by a sombre premonition, tried to recuse him from the RFI on the basis of his previous involvement in the case.
However, although it is stated in law that a judge can be recused by opposition of either party or disqualify himself on grounds of prejudice or personal involvement, and despite the fact that there were certainly many others capable of sitting as Wreck Commissioner for the Investigation, the families’ resistance to justice Steel’s appointment did not succeed, and they had to contend themselves with the Commissioner chosen by the government.

Having always held the judges of this country in some kind of veneration, after our disclosures, we expected Sir David to show some last-minute sympathy towards the idea of putting right what he had obviously let go wrong. As Admiralty judge and head of for the 2004 Investigation, he was in a good position to recommend a re-opening of the case.

We were, however, to be disappointed: justice Steel decided to hide and stay quiet.
[1] The Loss of the Motor Trawler Gaul, by John Nicklin, 1998
[2] The owner of the shipyard in 1978 was British Shipbuilders (a State Corporation), hence Mr Steel was effectively acting for the Government of the day (i.e. Labour)

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