My blog, as regular readers will know, concentrates on ideas or matters of general import to society or the world. I do occasionally blog about other things, such as the less strictly legal aspects of my life at the English Bar, particularly if the story or anecdote has a humorous element or one which, to me, seems to say something about society as a whole.
When I blog about people I have known or had connection with, I usually keep them anonymous, or use initials only as identifiers. However, there are cases where the individual is either very well-known or, in my view, does not deserve the protection of anonymity.
Let us go back to December 2007, when I was beginning to have serious problems with the Revenue, problems which were not resolved until 2012. I made my last appearance in court (a truly ridiculous 3-day construction case at Central London County Court…long story, deserving a blog piece of its own some day) and left for my home in North Finistere, France (though I remained, purely nominally, a barrister in chambers, and at the practising Bar, until mid-2008).
Not long before I left for France for the last time (I had been bi-weekly commuting for 3 years via car ferry and air), a nuisance joined chambers. I had twice (successfully) opposed this barrister, one Brent McDonald, in fairly minor County Court negligence cases in the South West of England and had been frankly unimpressed by him. Though he seemed not unintelligent, he also seemed devoid of common sense: for example, insisting to a judge that a motor accident must have happened in a certain way because of the laws of kinetic energy! He was originally in the construction trade, I believe, and had a technical background. I disliked his attitude, which was very and unnecessarily confrontational. He was also a sore loser. If I am being completely honest, I thought that there was something wrong with him mentally.
That individual, I believe of Scottish origins, was, according to the senior clerk to chambers, married to an Indian (I think) woman, and they apparently had a child (in fact, if memory serves, two children). The Clerk said that he had plenty of good work, mostly legally-aided.
I was, at the time, a member of Rougemont Chambers, Exeter, which had burgeoned from a handful of people and not much work when I joined in 2002 to being a busy provincial set with a couple of dozen barristers and three clerks in 2007 (it is now merged with another set under a new name and is the largest set in Exeter and the largest in the South West outside Bristol).
The other members of chambers (it was always a surprise to me what poor judges of character many barristers are) were apparently impressed by McDonald at a reception chambers held for him, and the senior clerk was impressed by the list of solicitors supposedly willing to instruct him (and thus bring work and revenue to chambers). I abstained on accepting him into chambers, rather than voting against him, because both the Head of Chambers (who is now a Circuit Judge) and the Senior Clerk had persuaded all other members to approve him and I did not have the power to veto his acceptance.
In the first day or so, McDonald was not offensive and even remarked on how impressed he was that I was mentioned in the main legal directories (that “review” barristers and solicitors) as someone to brief on matters such as Caribbean and other offshore laws, and oil and gas questions, the latter particularly involving the Russophone jurisdictions where I had had very direct experience (including a year living in Kazakhstan).
It was not long, however, before McDonald started to buttonhole me on my political views, though only on the race question (including the Jewish Question). This was odd, because members of chambers rarely discussed anything political. McDonald was insolent and inquisitorial. To me, his attitude was unbelievable, not least because he had only just joined chambers and was in every way junior to me! Protocol is important to me. His demeanour was would-be intimidating, would-be bossy. I was fuming but courtesy also is very important to me. In fact, the bastard even remarked, half-sneeringly, on how polite I was and how it was obvious that politeness was important to me!
McDonald effectively admitted that his antipathy toward me was based on (his kneejerk assumption about) my political views, combined with the fact that his wife and offspring (I think that he had two children) were non-European; as noted above, I believe that his wife was Indian. In the end, he grudgingly accepted that I had different views from his and we effectively agreed to avoid each other in chambers. Until he arrived, chambers had been a pleasant place. It was an object lesson in how one person can poison a whole environment very quickly.
So I left the practising Bar and my Exeter chambers and England, though not primarily (in fact, scarcely at all) because of McDonald (though his being there was certainly a disincentive to me, like the taste of a bitter piece of peel when eating a fruit).
I do not think that McDonald stayed long in those chambers before joining a larger set in Bristol, an offshoot of a London set. I noticed that he was himself now mentioned in the legal directories which he seemed to revere. They said that he “had come up through the ranks” and was well-regarded or some such.
I myself have always viewed such legal directories with skepticism, not so much because they recommended me at one time (!) but more because I had read glowing reports about people and organizations which did not chime with my direct experience of them, such as the “Emerging Markets” mini-department at Cameron McKenna (a large City of London law firm) for which I worked for 6 months in 1996-97, based for most of which time in Almaty, Kazakhstan (I later stayed on there, working with a very large American law firm).
That Cameron McKenna department was largely a Potemkin village created by an Australian woman of Russian-speaking (note speaking) origins, who would have been incapable of organizing the proverbial “piss-up in a brewery”, but who was very good at putting on an impressive front: when her department was about to be closed (when the **** hit the fan in various ways), about a year after I myself had moved on, that person not only managed to move just in time (and with a few toadies) to another large City of London law firm dealing with Russia, Kazakhstan etc, but the Times legal section and the main legal directories all (briefed by her and/or cronies, no doubt) lauded her new firm as having been “strengthened” by having this useless and devious woman and said toadies on board! (the last I heard of her, a few years ago, she had returned to the Antipodes and was an Australian trade delegate at a fairly high level, no doubt flourishing like the green bay tree…).
Anyway, returning to this McDonald character, I pretty much forgot about him for a decade, but then I started my blog and included a few reminiscences etc. So it was that I decided, recently, to see whether he was still at the Bar. To my surprise, I could not find him in the Bar Directory, or anywhere else, even by Googling. I did find some noted (i.e. appeal) cases, dating from 2008 or so. I wondered whether he had died, emigrated, even been disbarred! I drew a blank everywhere. Then I noticed that there was someone with the same surname at his last-known chambers. Not his wife at the time I knew him, because hers was a foreign, I think Indian, first name and this one was called Fran. Anyway, the Indian woman had not been at the Bar. So I thought that the surname must be co-incidence (McDonald being a fairly common name). Then, however, I noticed a few more facts.
It turned out that appeal cases from 2008 and later, proudly noted on that chambers’ website as having been done by Fran McDonald, had in fact been noted, in the law reports themselves, as having been done by Brent McDonald. I took a closer look.
The Bar Directory now has no public record for a Brent McDonald, but does now have an entry for one Lola Francesca McDonald…
Now a stranger move yet! It turns out that the barrister formerly known as Brent McDonald and now known as Fran McDonald has relocated to, of all places, the small New Zealand town of Nelson, at the top of NZ’s South Island.
What makes this move even stranger, on the face of it (and notwithstanding that Nelson seems a pleasant small town, reputedly the sunniest in New Zealand), is that McDonald (whether as Brent or Fran) was a personal injury specialist (though in Exeter he did other negligence-related and yet other work in the brief time when we were both members of Rougemont Chambers in 2007). There is, as far as I know, no personal injury legal work in New Zealand (see below for the reason for this).
The legal directories said:
“‘…rising star [Fran] McDonald continues to act on severe injury and fatal accident cases in the UK and abroad. She is very popular.’ (2012)”; and
“‘[Fran] McDonald is solely focused on personal injury and clinical negligence.’ (2014)”
(note the square brackets: looks as if Fran was still Brent in 2012 and 2014, despite the “she”; as for the Legal 500, that organization does not note McDonald’s New Zealand departure in its latest online offering: see below)
Personal injury; public inquiry; clinical negligence; product liability; inquests.
Fran is a specialist barrister acting in the field of personal Injury who is recommended in both ‘Chambers & Partners’ and ‘The Legal 500’. Fran’s practice is focused on personal injury, including fatal accidents, inquests and inquiries.”
The favourable references cease after 2016. The reason is a little vague (to me at least). I have no idea how long “gender reassignment” takes (or whether Brent/Fran underwent it), though, apropos of nothing much, I did once own a copy of the memoirs of April Ashley, my copy sadly abandoned in France in 2009, along with 99% of my library of 2,000 books. The April Ashley book was rare, too, the print run having been pulped.
I presume that the apparent hiatus after 2016 may have had something to do with what must be a very trying metamorphosis for anyone.
What makes the emigration to New Zealand odd is that it is clear, on the face of it, that McDonald built up a solid reputation in England in personal injury and the related clinical negligence area, but has now relocated to a country where there is effectively no personal injury or clinical negligence work, because New Zealand has a “no-fault” system, based on universal insurance, assessment of injury etc (see Notes, below).
I notice that McDonald, despite and perhaps justly boosting his/her personal injury repertoire on the London chambers’ website (to the exclusion of almost everything else), now lists as specialisms “employment law” and, even more weirdly (to my eye), nautical matters!
“Fran’s main specialism in Nelson is issues relating to employment law. After completion of his exams in the new year he will resume practice over his full range of contentious interests including tort law (negligence, trespass etc), insurance, commercial/contractual disputes, professional liability, property disputes, medico-legal matters, engineering and construction and health and safety legislation.”
“Many of his cases over the years have had a nautical theme such as claims involving distraint of containerised goods, allisions or breach of contract especially where jurisdictional/conflict of laws questions arose. Fran is equally happy to bring or defend claims. For example, he acted for UK Marines injured on the battlefield at the same time as being counsel for over 1,200 Iraqis alleging they were imprisoned, tortured or had family members murdered by UK forces.“
The Nelson law firm names McDonald as Fran, as do the chambers in London (of which he/she is still, it seems, a member), but the London website refers to “she/her” whereas the New Zealand one has it as “he/his”. All very confusing… In addition, the New Zealand law firm shows McDonald as male, in a suit, shirt, tie, with short hair. The London website shows Fran as, or as if, female, with matching hair. Even more confusing…
The New Zealand law firm, Hamish Fletcher, which McDonald has joined in Nelson, has —actually not too unpleasing aesthetically, from the architectural point of view— offices on the floors above some retail outlets: Specsavers, a clothing shop and a “vape shop”, as can be seen via Google Earth.
Well, there it is. I am no psychiatrist, but it appears that the underlying motive force here is a wish for reinvention: the young man in construction or engineering becomes a barrister, marries, has children, changes sets, changes locations, changes sex, emigrates to the far side of the world and to very different circumstances, even (as it appears) metamorphosing in appearance again.
In the Russian proverb, “the soul of another is a dark wood” [чужая душа темный лес].
Does the above story tell us anything beyond the egregious McDonald’s personal odyssey? Someone seemingly rootless… is that typical of the age, typical now of UK people? I myself was once called, in jest, “the wandering Aryan”! It does reinforce my view of “legal directories”, not to mention chambers’ and law firms’ websites!
What about the “gender bender” aspect? A lady barrister I knew in London once was convinced that pollution of the water and air was leading to feminization in the males of both fish and humans (she was looking at her boyfriend at the time!). Was she wrong? I merely pose the question. When both April Ashley and (btw) a later friend of mine, Della Aleksander, had “sex change surgery” in Casablanca (April Ashley in 1960, Della Aleksander sometime in the early 1970s, I believe), such things were outrageous enough to draw down huge tabloid press interest. Now, it sometimes seems as though everyone and his dog is having a “sex change”! I do not think we can simply shrug our shoulders at all this. It may be that we are coming to the point where our whole civilization is about to experience a crisis.
Many readers of my blog will be aware that I ceased to be even nominally a barrister in late 2016. For those who are not, and are curious as to why, please see:
Update, 6 May 2019
I happened to notice that the name of the subject of the blog post no longer appears in the online list of barristers belonging to his former chambers in England.