Blackstone Chambers has stood by Lord Lester, a member and Liberal Democrat peer accused of sexual harassment, while another of its barristers has intervened to save his skin in the House of Lords.
Lester was set to be suspended by the House of Lords until the intervention on Thursday of Lord Pannick, a fellow Blackstone barrister, who won a vote to refer the matter back to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. He did so on the basis that its commissioner, former Law Society President Lucy Scott-Montcrieff, failed to act "in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness" when dealing with Lester's case.
Lester, a human rights lawyer who in recent years has acted for Scientology, was accused by Jasvinder Sanghera, a campaigner against forced marriage and the founder of the charity Karma Nirvana, of harassing her a decade ago. Saghera surrendered her right to anonymity this week to encourage, she said, any other victims of Lester to come forward.
Sanghera made her complaint in November last year. She claimed that when she missed her train after a meeting with Lester at the House of Lords, he insisted she stay the night at his London home. On the drive there, "He kept repeatedly missing the gearstick with his hand and instead very firmly placed his hand on my right thigh", she said.
"The first time it happened I thought it must’ve been an accident, but when it continued I realised it was not. I removed his hand and asked him to stop. He just smiled. I felt incredibly uncomfortable knowing that I was on the way to staying at his house. He continued to grope my thigh for the length of the journey, despite my protests."
After a cup of tea with Sanghera and his wife, the barrister showed her to her bedroom. Sanghera said he explained that "it was not far from his bedroom, which he insisted on pointing out to me, saying he would not be far from me". Sanghera called a friend to say she felt trapped, and on their advice she jammed a chair against the door and went to bed fully clothed.
The following morning, after Lord Lester's wife had left the house, Sanghera said the peer "came up behind me and put his arms around my waist".
"I pushed him away. Again, he placed his arms around me and further up my body. I had to force myself away. He pursued me around the kitchen and I pleaded with him to stop. Once he stopped, I told him that I wished to leave".
Before driving her to the station, he told her "he had strong feelings for me" and "insisted on showing me his shed" (surely a suspending offence all by itself).
In a subsequent meeting at the House of Lords, Lester told Sanghera he would make her a baroness if she had sex with him, she said, and that he could ruin her if she refused. "He said, 'if you sleep with me I will make you a Baroness within a year'...He even spelt it out putting my surname in, and asked me how that sounded".
Sanghera alleged that Lester then began pointing out peers and commenting "on the reasons they have reached the positions they were in – including that one individual had slept with someone, another had relatives and good connections, and so on". He also allegedly "made reference to the colour of the carpet" and said "that only members of the House of Lords are allowed to walk on the red carpet and the 'commoners' were to walk on the blue carpet". Sanghera said the impression he conveyed "was that he was a man of power who could make things happen and that I was powerless in comparison".
Lester warned her, she said, that unless she was a "good girl" who agreed to sleep with him, he would "see to it that I never had a seat in the House of Lords". He "warned me that there would be other repercussions for me", before making "a number of further inappropriate sexual comments to me such as that he could see me becoming a demanding mistress".
Sanghera said that she immediately phoned friends including a district judge, a senior British embassy diplomat and a director of the CPS to tell them what had happened, all of whom confirmed her account to the committee as witnesses.
She said she was subsequently frozen out of Lester's campaign, but decided not to make a complaint until last year, when she heard how an intern in the House of Lords had reported a similar experience against a different peer and became convinced that she had to act.
In his defence, Lester presented the ten year delay as evidence of its falsehood. Sanghera called the suggestion "surprisingly self-serving...given his area of expertise" and said that Lester appeared "to fail to understand the thought processes of victims”. Lester also argued that Sanghera's lack of obvious distress at his home suggested he was innocent. "She does not explain how her apparently normal appearance and behaviour were compatible with her allegations of seriously distressing sexual misconduct the night before”, he said.
Describing himself as a "happily married man", Lester presented his spotless record with women as further evidence of his innocence. "Had I been guilty of these things, there would be likely to be other women coming forward in the past nine months. People who abuse their power with sexual assault are likely to have many victims. I have none." Lester outlined his professional work promoting equality for women, suggesting that while it “does not prove my innocence", it "demonstrates the inherent unlikeliness of the complainant’s allegations being true”.
Asked to explain why Sanghara would have lied to her witnesses about the incident and then waited ten years to make a complaint, Lester said, “I wish I could. I speculate and I speculate". Later on, in an apparent outburst, he alluded to a conspiracy involving Sanghera and her witnesses, claiming that it was "a pack of lies told by her and her supporters".
A central plank of Lester's defence and his subsequent appeal was the House of Lords' Code of Conduct, which he argued was not designed to investigate sexual harassment and was therefore inapplicable. In the committee's report, Scott-Moncrieff, the Commissioner of Standards, said that Lester appeared to believe that "whether or not the allegations were true, he should not have been subject to investigation". She pointed out that in 2009 Lester made a speech in favour of the suspension of other misbehaving peers in which "he vigorously defended the processes which he now seeks to undermine".
Concluding that there was no "plausible reason" why Sanghera or her witnesses would have lied, and that "she was more likely than not to have been telling the truth", the committee recommended that Lester be suspended until June 2022.
Scott-Moncrieff also claimed that Lester harassed her own staff. "Lord Lester bombarded my office (sometimes several times a day) with demands that I should complete the investigation quickly and exonerate him", she said. Calling the Blackstone barrister's behaviour "grossly inappropriate", she described how her clerk "bore the brunt of the harassment". He was also criticised for leaking Sanghera's name to another Lord. Lester called the investigation a "nightmare", describing how The Sun "called me 'Lord Mo-Lester'".
Before leading 101 peers to vote against the suspension, fellow Blackstone barrister Lord Pannick told The Times, “Parliament has applied a procedure that would be invalidated by the courts if Lord Lester were to be suspended by his local darts club”. Which perhaps explains why Blackstone Chambers is standing by its man. “We take any allegations of sexual harassment made against members of Chambers or staff extremely seriously", a spokesman told RollOnFriday, "and have strict internal policies and procedures in place to ensure they are dealt with properly". Asked whether Chambers had received any other complaints, he said, "To the best of my knowledge, no complaints have ever been made to Chambers about Lord Lester’s conduct".