The lawyer Anthony Lester, who has died aged 84, was the author of the groundbreaking legislation on racial and gender equality introduced in Britain by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s. He was also the single most influential voice in establishing the recognition of the concept of human rights in the courts and its enshrinement in domestic law in 1998 by the succeeding Labour administration under Tony Blair.
The reforming home secretary Roy Jenkins, who has been credited by history with responsibility for the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976, happily conceded in his memoirs that his commitment to the principle of human rights was thanks to the encouragement and direction of Lester, to whom he also gave credit for writing much of the legislation almost single-handed.
Lester’s lasting impact on civil and human rights also included work on civil partnerships, which led to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, and on the rights of free speech which resulted in the Defamation Act 2013. In the course of a lifetime campaigning in the law he also acted in a number of historic British court cases including the Sunday Times’s case against the Distillers’ company over the use of thalidomide in 1972 and the attempt by Margaret Thatcher’s government to ban the publication of the former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s memoir Spycatcher in 1987. Ten years later he acted for Diane Blood, the widow who won the right to conceive a child of her late husband, using his previously stored sperm.
Most pertinently, given recent developments in Hong Kong, it was Lester who was prominent in first warning, in 1990 after governing authority for Hong Kong had been restored to China, that the newly enacted Hong Kong Bill of Rights could possibly be used by the government in Beijing as an “instrument of oppression” against the people of the island.
In a sad coda to his career, in November 2018 the House of Lords’ committee for privileges and conduct recommended the suspension of Lester, who had joined the Lords as a peer in 1993. The case arose from a complaint by the author and charity worker Jasvinder Sanghera, who waived her right to anonymity to assert that in 2006 she had been subjected to sexual harassment by Lester and additionally offered a peerage in exchange for sexual favours.
Sanghera was influenced by the emergence of the Me Too campaign to raise the historic incident, which Lester rejected as “completely untrue”. A procedural wrangle in the Lords led to a vote against Lester’s suspension, although he nevertheless resigned his membership of the upper house. The vote to suspend him was later agreed by the Lords. He himself said that he had neither the strength nor the health to continue to counter the allegation and friends suggested that the case hastened his death from heart disease.
Born in London, Anthony was the grandchild of Jewish refugees and the elder son of a barrister, Harry Lester, and his wife, Kate (nee Cooper-Smith), who was a milliner. From the City of London school he went on to national service in the Royal Artillery (1955-57). Although a non-observing Jew, he refused to put his religion as Church of England, rather than Jewish, when advised to do so by his commanding officer before the ill-fated Suez invasion in 1956, on the grounds that he would be less likely to be tortured if he were captured during the exercise.
He went on to study history and law at Trinity College, Cambridge, then spent two years at Harvard Law School and secured a master’s. He also demonstrated his early concern for race relations by writing a report for Amnesty International which was published in 1964 as Justice in the American South.
By that time, Lester had already been called to the bar, in 1963, as a member of Lincoln’s Inn and begun his lifetime pursuit of an improvement in the equality laws in the UK. During the 60s he was a founder member of the Institute of Race Relations, of which he became a council member, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (1964), and the Runnymede Trust (1968, and its chair 1991-93).
He was also a member of the Society of Labour Lawyers, the Fabian Society (chair 1972-73) and the Family Planning Association. His work for Jenkins during the 60s Labour government extended to editing a book of Jenkins’ essays and speeches (1967).
His first sortie into public political life came as Labour candidate in the safe Conservative seat of Worthing in the 1966 general election. He had been a committed Gaitskellite and his close friendship with Jenkins led to him joining the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. After the collapse of the SDP, he joined the Liberal Democrats and was nominated for the Lords by Paddy Ashdown. He had worked for Ashdown, notably in resolving an internal party problem in Tower Hamlets, and was trusted as a fair and sagacious adviser.
He was also seen as a brave lawyer. Those who worked with him said that he could be pernickety and sometimes grumpy, but he was always prepared to stick his neck out in the interests of furthering the pursuit of equality. After appearing in a human rights case in the Singapore courts in 1989, he was thereafter banned from any subsequent case in their judiciary, a decision that took on diplomatic implications when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office objected.
He spent more than 30 years seeking to secure the inclusion of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and regarded his eventual success with astonishment because of the length of time that it had taken. At a bar conference in 1987, he found himself arguing with Blair, then a newly elected young Labour MP, about the merits of such legislation and it was another 11 years before he won the argument.
By that time he had, however, won the intellectual argument for which he had earlier found himself being derided in the courts. One favourite example was his practice of applying for advertised vacancies by submitting two identical applications with the pseudonyms “Smith” and “Singh” and noting the predictable relative successes notched up by “Smith”.
When Gordon Brown took office as prime minister in 2007, he appointed Lester as an adviser to the justice secretary, Jack Straw, with responsibility for constitutional reform. Brown chose him as one of the men and women of goodwill whom he wanted in his “Goat” – government of all talents – described as “a new spirit of public service”.
The arrangement was not a success and there were difficulties because of Lester’s lack of readiness to collaborate with others. He had never been a team player and resigned the following year. He subsequently complained that human rights legislation needed to be constantly defended against erosion by its critics and this was the prevailing theme of his last book, Five Ideas to Fight For (2016).
Lester was made a QC in 1975 and appointed as a recorder in 1987, a post he held until joining the Lords. At Westminster he was a member of the Lords procedure and privileges committee (1994-96), the joint parliamentary human rights committee (2001-15) and the Lords constitution committee (2013-16). He was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on human rights until the 2018 complaint against him.
Among many other appointments he was made adjunct professor at the University of Cork law faculty in 2005. In 2007 he was given a lifetime achievement award in the human rights awards sponsored by the pressure groups Liberty and Justice.
In 1971 he married a fellow barrister, Katya (Catherine) Wassey. She later became an asylum judge and survives him together with their son, Gideon, an artistic director in New York, and their daughter, Maya, who followed them into the law and became a QC in 2016.
• Anthony Paul Lester, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, lawyer, born 3 July 1936; died 8 August 2020