Photography for Prospect by Sarah M Lee

Jolyon Maugham: lawyer, activist, public enemy

Jolyon Maugham picks fights on Twitter and pursues the government through the courts to force social and political change. Anne Perkins profiles a controversial QC in his prime. Just don’t mention the fox
September 8, 2022

One summer day in 1994, a young law student called Jo Maugham arrived at a central London office to cover for a secretary who’d called in sick. Smart in his suit and tie, he was surprised to be peremptorily sent home: they thought “Jo” would be female. It didn’t take Maugham long to conclude he was being dismissed because he was a man.

Most 20-somethings in the same position would shrug and move on. Maugham sued. He represented himself at an industrial tribunal and won £430 for sex discrimination. “The real discrimination here is against women,” Maugham was quoted saying afterwards. “Men don’t seem able to give orders to other men.”

Here in a thumbnail is Maugham’s story: the passion for litigation, the refusal to accept injustice, and the determination to have the last word—all the elements of the mature brand Maugham. As is, of course, a flair for publicity.

Twenty years later, Maugham was making headlines again. After the 2016 referendum, he was at the forefront of a string of legal challenges to Brexit that culminated in the successful challenge to the prorogation of parliament. In 2017, he founded the Good Law Project (GLP), which crowdfunds legal action that seeks to hold the government or other public bodies to account. He is now constantly in the media—either as a bewigged superhero pursuing justice, or a narcissistic publicity-seeker giving lawyers a bad name.

The Good Law Project taps into deep public anger towards a government that breaks its own laws with apparent impunity. While some people express their frustration at rallies or protests, others dig into their pockets and support the GLP. In the last financial year, 2021–2022, the organisation’s annual accounts showed an income of £6.4m, more than double the £2.9m of the previous year. The money is raised from 30,000 monthly donors giving an average of £8 each, and many more who respond to appeals for specific litigation.

Maugham, who has a highly developed grasp of what the law might and might not permit, is its guiding genius. He homes in on cases that connect with people’s outrage at the conduct of government and other public bodies. In the past year, the project has been linked with the campaign against alleged Tory Party cronyism in the awarding of ­contracts to provide PPE in the early days of Covid. It has successfully exposed the use of a VIP lane for MPs’ contacts, as well as the government’s failure to publish Covid-related contracts within the specified time.

The GLP has made a difference even when it hasn’t won. Its challenge to the Metropolitan Police for failing to investigate Partygate never went to court, but the Met investigated after all. It abandoned one of its earliest cases—a challenge to Uber over its non-payment of VAT—because of the cost of fighting a global tech giant. All the same, the tax authorities were shamed into action.

Maugham the lawyer believes that litigation can be a corrective to the weakness of parliament and the growing strength of government. “As citizens, we are aware of the need for social change,” he said in a 2017 lecture. “But we feel a sense of helplessness when confronted with the question, ‘How do we deliver social change?’… And litigation provides an answer, to me and I believe to others, to the question: ‘What can I do?’”

One sign of his impact showed in the final days of the Conservative leadership contest, when Rishi Sunak (furious to be fined for attending one of the Downing Street parties) launched an ad hominem attack on Maugham and the GLP in a press release, for “politicising our courts, wasting time and taxpayers’ money, and slowing down government delivery.” Maugham, the only person named in the release, is cited 10 times. He says he is now taking advice about his personal security.

When we feel helpless, litigation provides an answer to the question: “What can I do?”

Maugham the social justice campaigner spends a lot of time on Twitter, where he assaults, in 280-character bursts, the deceit and venality that he sees in public life. He is sometimes extremely rude. He values conflict, occasionally at the expense of accuracy. He has had to apologise to journalists, Dominic Cummings and two high court judges he had accused of bias.

His most notorious tweet, known in the GLP office as TIWF—“The Incident with the Fox”—was sent early on Boxing Day 2019. “Already this morning I have killed a fox with a baseball bat. How’s your Boxing Day going?” (He was, piquantly, wearing his wife’s “too small green kimono” at the time).

On that occasion, as on many others, his enemies in the traditional media and on social media heaped him with scorn and derision. An inquiry by the RSPCA followed (it cleared him), as did what Maugham still feels bitterly was an unjust monstering by the BBC. “If you’re at the centre of a pile-on that lasts for seven or eight days it’s enormously painful and it’s all consuming and you feel as if your life is at an end,” he said in an interview broadcast after the inquiry concluded. Make no mistake, this is a high-wire act.

Maugham’s life has been Dickensian in its welter of events. He was born in London in 1971. His mother Lynne was a student at what was then North London Polytechnic, the first in her family to go on to higher education. She had a brief affair with the bestselling novelist David Benedictus, who had been to Eton and Oxford and was considerably older. Benedictus disputed paternity but agreed to pay a “nuisance” allowance of £5 a week. There was no question of marriage. This has become the foundation myth of Maugham, the campaigner who has the lived experience of being an outsider, who is for the powerless against the powerful.

As soon as she graduated, Maugham’s mother took off with her baby for New Zealand, where she married a man she met at teacher training college. The family grew to include a brother and, after a spell living in Fiji, two Fijian sisters who had been rejected by families who only wanted boys.

By the time Maugham was at secondary school—“a very troubled teenager, covered in spots, very socially awkward,” he says—relations between him and the man whom he believed was his father were becoming unmanageable. He was “told to leave” home and was taken in by a succession of overly attentive male teachers.

The pain of this estrangement is still palpable. But even then, he was driven by self-belief, doing a cleaning job to eke out the small allowance his parents gave him, managing the attentions of his landlords, getting through his schoolwork. “I didn’t ever contemplate leaving school… it didn’t even occur to me. I’ve always assumed that I will be successful… and my path to success involved finishing school,” he tells me.

A trip to the UK was mooted. It was at this point that, for reasons to do with passports and birth certificates, Maugham learned at 17 that he was not the son of the man he regarded as his oppressor, but of an entirely different, glamorous figure who lived on the other side of the world.

Within months of arriving in England, Maugham had tracked down his biological father, through him got a job with BBC Radio 3, joined its list of repertory actors, been commissioned to make a feature about the New Zealand poet James K Baxter and embarked on a radio play. “One of the things that holds particularly working-class kids back is a sense of their own intellectual inferiority,” he says. “But I didn’t have that [sense]… And that was quite empowering.

“The establishment didn’t really know how to deal with somebody who just said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ It had no mechanism to respond to it, other than to say yes. That sort of pose of intellectual bravery is really important. Even if, perhaps especially if, you know that it’s not justified,” he says.

The relationship with Benedictus began on a high and went downhill. “I’ve gone from being sort of entranced by his charm to irritated by the trail of destruction. And his self-indulgence, from which it’s too late for him to rescue himself,” he says. Relations with his mother and adoptive father, after a long spell of distance, are now warm and loving.

In 1991, Maugham went to Durham University to study law, spending a formative year at Leuven University in Belgium on the Erasmus scheme. “Studying law in England was like putting slides under a microscope, whereas [in Europe] they taught it as a social science… [the law] was a player, a participant in the process by which the European Union came to be,” he says. It was the first time he’d ever felt at home.

Maugham’s charm and intellect took him from a first-class degree to a pupillage at Tony Blair’s old chambers. They didn’t ask him to stay—he was “too rude”—so instead he went to 11 New Square, one of London’s leading tax law chambers. In 2013, he switched to another set, Devereux. Then, in 2015, he became a Queen’s Counsel, the public mark of success, at the relatively early age of 43. He was shortlisted for tax lawyer of the year by the prestigious Legal 500 and, according to a recent Chambers UK Bar guide, “His advice is always first class and deeply valued by clients. His most striking abilities are demonstrated in court. He is able to think with great speed and precision on his feet.”

So: Maugham was married, had three children and a generous income that was likely only to grow. He had just bought a windmill in Sussex for which he had ambitious conversion plans. He was steaming along towards full membership of the establishment—influence, comfort and prosperity insulated from the tribulations of the less fortunate.

article body image

Spoiling for a fight: Maugham speaks to journalists outside the Supreme Court in September 2019. Image: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

It was not where he wanted to be. “I was already sure that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a barrister… you can be trapped by the lifestyle you adopt to try and make sense of spending your life doing a job that you don’t enjoy,” he says.

Maugham had started a blog about the politics of tax law in 2013. Soon he was informally advising Labour on how it might develop tax policy for the 2015 manifesto. There was speculation that he might be hoping to become a Labour MP. Then Labour lost the election; the Tories won a majority; and David Cameron, cornered by his party’s Eurosceptics, conceded a referendum.

On 24th June 2016, the day after the vote, Maugham posted a blog that anticipated the first legal challenge to Brexit: he suggested that a case should be brought to establish that Article 50, the mechanism for departure, could be reversed. The potential for a legal interrogation of the processes of leaving the EU (and for creating the space to think again) was cracked open. Rulings on the role of parliament in deciding when to trigger Article 50 and later the legality of its prorogation followed. He drafted the Benn Act, which in effect prevented a no-deal departure. One way or another, he was involved in the most bitter and divisive contest between the law and politics since the Bill of Rights in 1689.

The campaigns brought Maugham notoriety. They also made a significant contribution to parliamentary gridlock. Negotiators argued that ruling out a no-deal Brexit weakened their hand. The constant battles helped harden the division between Leavers and Remainers. Hostility to Maugham continues. He insists that he was never trying to reverse the referendum result, only to clarify the law and ensure that parliament had a role in what happened next—which of course could have had the effect his Leave-supporting critics were worried about.

Within months of the referendum, he was thinking about other ways the law might be developed as a player in the field of politics, a counterweight to an all-powerful executive. “The burgeoning interest in the law as a mechanic for achieving social change is very directly related to a growing despondency about the functioning of democracy,” he said, in a lecture the year after the vote.

This amounts to more than using law to push an issue up the political agenda. To purists, this is lawfare: it is using the law for political ends, and it is an offence against the constitution.

Maugham lives in an elegant 19th-century house in southeast London with his wife and three children. It is bright and sunny, with a huge kitchen and a view across a large garden to a beautiful Georgian parish church.

His children—a son of 15 and two daughters aged 13 and 11—are at school locally. His wife has a successful career in communications as well as being a serious musician. Furniture and wood carvings reflect her Indonesian heritage. An au pair guards the front door for deliveries. Someone else is doing the cleaning. To a certain breed of critic, this financial and personal security makes his campaigning on behalf of the poor and the powerless the act of a sanctimonious hypocrite. To the thousands who support his Good Law Project, it is a platform for action.

Since he set up the GLP, Maugham has abandoned the handsome income of a tax lawyer (a top tax silk can earn more than £1m a year) and by the organisation’s own rulebook is allowed to take home no more than a backbench MP, £84,144 a year. He has sold the windmill (after the remodelling won two Riba awards) because he needed the money.

For a while it did appear that Maugham still saw himself as a politician, although not necessarily a Labour one. After Theresa May called a snap election in 2017, he pondered launching a party called “Spring!” and later used his blog to join the swirling conversation about the idea of a new centrist party. Now, he has moved on from the idea of direct political involvement, believing the political ecosystem is so damaged that parliament can no longer do its constitutional job.

Adam Ridley, a banker and former adviser to Thatcher’s chancellor Geoffrey Howe, is one of the 30,000 GLP supporters who saw a need for an organisation that fights for government accountability. “They are the only people consistently chasing most of the major constitutional defects that emerged in recent years under successive governments,” he says. “They do it effectively and with a very high success rate.”

article body image

Photography for Prospect by Sarah M Lee

Maugham’s critics argue that the GLP’s Brexit victories have encouraged him to mis-sell the potential of using the law to achieve change and underplay the risk if the public perceive the courts as the scene of political operations.

The government is now seeking new ways to restrict the right to judicial review, where a judge examines the decisions of a public body. The lord chancellor, whose historic role is to defend the judiciary and the rule of law, refused to reprimand the prime minister for criticising “lefty” lawyers. The attorney general, Suella Braverman, has said she won’t abandon policy just because government lawyers think it might be illegal. Perhaps as a result, the number of successful applications for judicial review halved between 2019 and 2020.

The GLP is not alone in using litigation to achieve policy change—organisations including the Baring Foundation, Legal Action Group and Public Law Project have done so for at least the last 30 years. The difference is that while most operators in this field have charitable status, which precludes them from political campaigning, and are financed by grants and endowments, the GLP was set up as a not-for-profit with a mission to “use the law to protect the interests of the public.”

It is its reliance on public support which, its critics say, poses the risk. The GLP’s business model depends on being in the headlines, potentially leading Maugham’s team to overstate their impact. One well-regarded lawyer, Barbara Rich, tweeted: “Hyperbole and selective focus in describing the outcome of litigation would not matter much, but for the fact that the GLP relies on public contributions to its finances, and that it occupies the territory where law and politics meet.”

Others, like Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at the LSE, welcome the opportunity that crowdfunding gives less well off people to access the law. “How can we possibly maintain that only the rich should have access to challenges to government authority?” he asks.

Maugham stresses the GLP’s transparency. The cases it brings are chosen according to a set of criteria detailed on its website. They include the degree of public or political interest; the urgency of an issue affecting a particularly disadvantaged community; and whether the case would otherwise be litigated. On its pledge pages, it sets out exactly what stage the litigation is at and how funds will be used. It is upfront about reasons for pulling out of cases and is open that 10 per cent goes on running the organisation. A spreadsheet of outcomes tallies victories in court and in publicising a cause.

Maugham himself never represents the GLP in court. The organisation has 23 staff members, including four lawyers, and an independent advisory board of six. It instructs barristers who are paid the top government rate (£120 an hour, in London)—often a fraction of the commercial fee. Its office, more or less empty in the age of working from home, has a table so big it has to sit diagonally in the warehouse-style room. There is a kitchen from where, in t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms on the day I call, Maugham dispenses tea and coffee. It is a yoga day and only a hard stare from his communications manager deters Maugham, an eager practitioner, from demonstrating his headstand.

If Maugham on Twitter practises a toned-down version of the “shitpost performance art” of which Elon Musk is a master, in person he is engaged and thoughtful. He listens carefully and frames his answers with a lawyerly attention to the meaning of his words. His answers are so deliberate that for transcription purposes they can be played back comfortably at 1.5x speed.

Maugham sees Twitter as a way to challenge power. Stewart Wood, a Labour peer and old political friend who is on GLP’s board, calls him a provocateur. “He’s someone who thinks that an obsession with playing nice won’t get things done… He thinks a lot about whether he’s crossed lines… [but] he can be quite rude. There’s no doubt about that,” he says.

Maugham does sometimes take down tweets or admit when he has made mistakes—but on social media, you might as well analyse the arc of a hand grenade after it has gone off. One recent example is that, in early July, as the Tory leadership contest began, he tweeted and then deleted: “Do you think the members of your Party are ready to select a brown man, Rishi?” The next day he promised to reflect. By Monday he had posted a 20-tweet thread of explanation and justification. (“TL;DR: I can do better”).

Sunder Katwala, director of the think-tank British Future, responded to Maugham’s post, repeating an argument he made back in February that there was no evidence to suggest Sunak’s ethnicity would count against him. Katwala’s point is that, for a generation, black and Asian candidates were not selected by either party on the grounds that voters would not support them. Maugham ended up blocking Katwala and accusing him of “motivated attacks.” “What I realised in this exchange was that I think he has an extremely paternalistic view,” Katwala tells me. “There’s this ‘protective umbrella’ version of anti-racism.”

Maugham also uses Twitter in ways that those who cherish due process (not least his former colleagues at the bar) argue can feel like an abuse of power. In July, he tweeted a series of allegations about sexual misconduct by the Observer writer Nick Cohen, whose column is now suspended pending an investigation. Accused of naming and shaming, Maugham points to the alleged failure of the Observer’s parent group, GNM, to investigate properly the charges made by two journalists. He wanted to help them get justice.

Maugham likes to have skin in the game in a way that is quite unexpected for a barrister who has spent his professional career working on the cab rank principle, taking the work that comes along. “How people think about institutions that have power, and the social capital that resides in them, is incredibly important… if I can change that, if I can attach cost to the misuse of their power, I have done something worth doing.”

There is something of St Sebastian, the early Christian who sought martyrdom to show others the virtue of faith, about the way Maugham sees the world: “I often choose to suffer personal cost to inflict cost on institutions. I adopt that as a very deliberate, conscious stance. And I think it’s what people consistently get wrong about me.”

Of all the causes that Maugham fights for, his advocacy for the trans community is the most vehement. “The work that I’ve done on trans rights is a skeleton key to a whole new moral universe,” he says. “That experience of sitting outside, of being systematically excluded, is a universal experience.”

He says that he may not be black, trans or disabled but he knows what it is like to be an outsider: “I’ve done what I’ve done from real disadvantage. I have lived outside the establishment. I have sat with the families of trans people who have committed suicide in the aftermath of that suicide.”

His commitment to the trans cause, and in particular to the right of children and young people to medical care, has probably got him into as much trouble as everything else put together. His remarks in an interview with an American journal, in which he criticised the judge in the Keira Bell case—which found that children did not have the capacity to consent to puberty-blocking treatment—got him referred to the Bar Standards Council. He was cleared. (Despite many referrals to the council, it has never ruled against him.) The Bell decision was overturned on an appeal brought by the GLP, paid for out of its special transgender fund.

I’ve done what I’ve done from real disadvantage. I have lived outside the establishment

In June 2022, Maugham set up an independent law firm, the Good Law Practice, designed to extend the GLP’s work in giving community groups and individuals access to the law. It will support a wider range of actions, such as community fights to protect green space or challenges to fracking.

For anyone who spent 25 years as a barrister, answerable only to himself, there are unfamiliar responsibilities in leading a growing team. Having more staff means it can have a bigger impact. But he’s wrestling with the change. “I’d say there was a tension that I didn’t have before I started this project,” he says.

Despite its growth, Maugham remains much more than the GLP’s public face: it is his, and it is him. Every decision about which cases to take up, when to drop them, the way the GLP promotes itself, how it measures success—all ultimately rest with Maugham. Which makes it hard to believe him when he suggests that perhaps he ought not to be in charge forever: “At some stage the board should ask itself whether I’m the right person to lead the Good Law Project. Maybe I want to be more radical than arguably benefits [it].”

There it is again, that search for a kind of martyrdom. Stewart Wood sees it as a rejection of safety. “He will always want to be in a place where it’s uncomfortable,” he says, “and he doesn’t want to be in a nice traditional part of the policymaking establishment where you’re writing the reports that no one ever reads. He wants to use his sharp elbows on behalf of causes that he thinks are just and people who he thinks are marginalised. He wants to use traditional parts of the establishment much more effectively. He wants to get the broad voice of progressive politics to shout again.”

This is the alluring offer that Maugham holds out to his thousands of backers: a new way of advancing the progressive interest. But as history testifies, in most contests with Britain’s flawed but resilient political culture, the challenger comes second.