The High Court has granted the “dying wish” of a barrister, suspended by a Bar disciplinary tribunal, that she should end her life as a practising member of the profession.
Barbara Hewson, who died this weekend, was suspended for two years in December 2019 for series of obscene tweets aimed at another barrister, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and its former director general Dr Vanessa Davies.
Mr Justice Pepperall described his decision to reduce the suspension to one year as “perhaps merciful in the face of such disgusting tweets”, but said it was based on “significant evidence of additional mitigating circumstances” in Ms Hewson’s terminal cancer diagnosis which were not before the Bar tribunal.
Ms Hewson, called in 1985, was suspended after admitting two charges of conduct likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public placed in both her and the profession.
In a ruling last week following an expedited hearing, the judge said that in August 2020 she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver.
“She underwent chemotherapy in the autumn but her condition deteriorated significantly between Christmas and the New Year. She is now receiving palliative care in a hospice in Galway and tragically the latest medical update is that she is not expected to live beyond the weekend.”
Pepperall J said barrister Elliot Gold and his instructing solicitors, 3D Solicitors Limited, represented Ms Hewson pro bono, while the BSB and its counsel James Stuart “dropped everything” to get the matter listed before her death.
The judge said Mr Gold argued that the tribunal took the view that the case did not justify disbarment and had not intended to disbar Ms Hewson for the rest of her life.
“Since she now has no more than days to live, that, he argues, would now be the effect of the suspension imposed by the tribunal. Such sanction would, he argues, be unduly harsh in the context of Ms Hewson’s bleak prognosis.
“While the matter is to some extent academic since Ms Hewson may not live beyond the weekend and plainly will never be able to practise again, he argues that Ms Hewson greatly values her membership of the profession and that it is her dying wish to be a full member of the profession upon her death.”
Mr Stuart expressed enormous sympathy for Ms Hewson’s situation but argued that the court should not interfere with an unimpeachable decision on sanction.
He added that Ms Hewson remained a member of the Bar and also of Middle Temple; the suspension meant only that she could not practise.
The court should not, he submitted, accede to the appeal simply because it was her wish not to be suspended.
Delivering judgment in Hewson v Bar Standards Board  EWHC 28 (Admin), Pepperall J said he did not accept Mr Stuart’s submission that a shorter period of suspension risked undermining public confidence in the Bar or regulation of the profession.
“Members of the public reading this judgment or any press report will understand that the court wholeheartedly endorses the view of the disciplinary tribunal that this was disgraceful conduct and that, but for the tragedy of Ms Hewson’s terminal diagnosis, it thoroughly merited suspension from the profession for a period of two years.
“Equally members of the public will understand that any court or tribunal takes into account personal circumstances when deciding upon the proper sanction for any wrongdoing.
“A terminal diagnosis does not expunge somebody’s wrongdoing, but it is an important factor that any court or tribunal will take into account when considering the sanction or penalty alongside other aggravating and mitigating features of the case.”
Pepperall J said in these “highly unusual” circumstances, it was appropriate to allow the appeal and reduce the period of suspension to one year.
Last month, Ms Hewson secured a second retraction and damages from a national newspaper over allegations it had made against her.
Among the tributes paid on Twitter to Ms Hewson was one from Daniel Janner QC, who said: “Tenacious brave brilliant barrister Barbara Hewson sadly died on Saturday.”
David Lock QC said: “She was funny, tenacious, uncompromising and, on occasions, brilliant for her clients. She did not suffer fools gladly and made strong friends. RIP.”