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Obituary: His Honour Judge George Mercer QC (B3 1966-70)

His Honour Judge Geoffrey Mercer QC (B3 1966-70) died on 22nd July 2018.

Just such a lovely man! Well we all knew that of Geoffrey Mercer as soon as we met him, but how often over the last 3 months since he succumbed to his illness have we thought of that, said it to others and heard it from others as we have reflected on the many happy times that Geoffrey brought to our lives.

Before his illness he would often say, “I am so lucky”. Until that wretched disease came along he had been deservedly fortunate in so many ways and he appreciated his life to the full; but it wasn’t luck that gave him a life that was blessed with the companionship of his lovely wife, Jill, 2 children, Clara and Charlie of whom he was so proud, a large circle of good friends and a successful career in the law – that all owed nothing to luck; it was due to those qualities in him that all of us here today experienced and admired and remember with such affection – his character, warmth, humour and ability. He deserved all that was so good that came his way.

Geoffrey’s family had lived in many different parts of the country when he was a child; his father’s career in the Royal Navy and the resultant postings meant many moves, but that continued after his father left the Navy. Geoffrey used to say that when his father was asked to read the lesson a second time in their local church he would say that it was time to move again. So we were fortunate that one of the family homes had been in Devon, and it was to Devon that he returned when embarking on his career. In the fashion of the day, Geoffrey went away to board at preparatory school when he was seven. His older brother Martin was in his last term at the school and was a very senior boy there; his parents’ idea was that Martin could help the very young Geoffrey settle in. However, when Geoffrey approached Martin at the start of term and asked “Martin, can you help me with something?” he was met with the retort “No, and you call me Mercer here.”

Geoffrey went on to win a scholarship to Marlborough. None of you will be surprised to hear that although he had a superb intellect, he was never a dry academic. There was a time when his parents were driving through Wiltshire when they saw a smart young boy on the side of the road hitch-hiking. He looked like a school-boy so they decided to stop to give him a lift and were surprised as they drew up to see that it was their son. Geoffrey had slipped away from Marlborough School to go to Newbury races and was having to hitch hike back as the bookies had got the better of him that day. His parents drove him back to school and gave him some money to see him through to the end of term. From what I have heard of his parents, I think that they probably quietly approved of his initiative, if not of his choice of horses to back.

After school he went travelling; he loved Turkey and the Middle East and travelled extensively though those areas. He also took a job on a merchant ship intending to work his passage to exotic lands. I remember him describing how after several days at sea having left Southampton docks he woke early one morning to see out of his cabin porthole the lights of landfall. Excited to discover what country he was going to be able to explore he asked where they were and was told that it was Falmouth. The ship had developed engine trouble and had turned back. He did eventually got as far as the Middle East.

Quite what turned Geoffrey’s head towards a life in the practice of the law I don’t know, though Martin thinks his interest may have started with his reading of the Enid Blyton books, The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters and the Mystery of the Invisible Thief, books that Martin says Geoffrey continued to re-read well into his 20’s. This was followed by his devouring of many Agatha Christie novels, their family having a copy of everyone published. As Martin says, after that, whatever method of murder may have been used in any of Geoffrey’s cases, he would have been ready for it.

So after studying at Southampton University and completing his Bar exams, Geoffrey started his pupillage, with John Hicks in Chambers in London at 4 Pump Court. He didn’t make a very auspicious start; such was his nervousness about getting to the right place at the right time on the first day that he overlooked changing out of his bedroom slippers into his polished black shoes, only realising his error as he walked up Middle Temple Lane towards the Chambers. Did he rush back home and change so that he was late arriving; did he run into Fleet Street and try and find a shoe shop or did he wear the slippers all day pretending that he had painful blisters and was wearing them on medical advice? I can’t provide the answer to that – no one has ever let on. Whatever solution he hit upon, it didn’t hold him back because, despite that start, his time with John Hicks was a happy one. John Hicks had a very erudite practice and Geoffrey, in his usual self-deprecating way, used to say that he never understood any of the legal problems that John Hicks advised on. Of course he did, or if he didn’t he was skilled at concealing his ignorance and an enduring friendship was formed. John Hicks wrote to Jill saying “I counted my friendship with Geoffrey as one of the most treasured gifts which I have received from my professional life”. A lovely sentiment that captures what so many of us feel.

After 6 months in London Geoffrey came to Exeter to complete his pupillage with Neil Butterfield in our Chambers. That he was going to be a star was obvious from the start and upon the completion of his pupillage he became a member of the Chambers. It wasn’t all plain sailing, we all have our set backs and for Geoffrey one came very early in almost his first case in the Crown Court. He was representing a man who had set fire to some lady’s underwear; it all seemed quite straight forward, as Geoffrey said, the lady wasn’t wearing the garment at the time and nobody was hurt so he was very shocked when his client was sentenced to life imprisonment. He had to appeal the sentence and in due course went to London to RCJ for a hearing in front of the Lord Chief Justice and 2 other senior judges. Now the Lord Chief Justice sits in a vast court room, as many of us here can confirm. It can be a daunting arena for even an experienced barrister, let alone a still white wigged one as Geoffrey was at the time. According to Geoffrey, who was never shy about telling a tale against himself, the case was called on, Geoffrey stood up and had been addressing the court in a nervous falsetto for 4 minutes when LCJ leant forward and bellowed tetchily –“Is there anyone here representing this man?”

This was but a temporary set back and Geoffrey’s career flourished. He had a thoughtful, elegant style, never forceful but achieving his successes by measured eloquence. A friend of ours who didn’t know Geoffrey served as a juror in a trial some years ago. She said to me later “Well, we just did what that nice Mr. Mercer said we should”.

He remained a member of our Chambers throughout his time practicing as a barrister. After a distinguished career as a junior, he became a QC in 2002. As such he prosecuted and defended in many of the most high-profile cases in the south-west. He was Head of Chambers for a number of years, gently steering us along with a benign dictatorship, always being prepared to give his time and expertise to help and guide younger members of Chambers. Then his appointment as a Circuit Judge in 2012. Such was his modesty about his own ability, he only applied to be a Judge when another prompted him to do so. Typically, he had left his application rather late; others have coaching to prepare for the interview and spend days rehearsing for the process; Geoffrey just turned up. Unsurprisingly, he made a favourable impression with his knowledge, judgement and easy charm and got the job. For the first 3 years he sat as a Judge in Bristol and then was transferred to Exeter; there are many here today from Bristol and I know that you regarded it as a huge loss when he left your courts to return to Exeter.

Back here, he became the senior Judge at Exeter Crown Court, the Resident Judge, and with that appointment became The Honorary Recorder of this city. He was responsible for the administration in the Crown Courts here as well as having his every day duties in court. He bore these responsibilities with his customary light touch, those qualities of humanity, judgement, fairness and empathy he had always shown in his work as a barrister served him well in his judicial work. He was admired and respected by all the lawyers whom he dealt with; the customers knew that he listened and that they were going to get a fair hearing. I think that the court staff adored him.

His standards were those of excellence and integrity in all his work.

We barristers can be a gossipy bunch, sometimes too eager to make a critical comment about another; my experience over Geoffrey’s 43 years in the law is that no one ever had an uncomplimentary thing to say about him.

Geoffrey had his struggles. To say that he had embraced modern technology with enthusiasm would be to exaggerate his relationship with it. He had a mobile phone and many of us had a number for it. I don’t think that I was the only one who regarded it as pointless ringing it. He had a lap-top computer. I only saw him using it once in Chambers; he was playing on-line bridge with someone in Barcelona.

There was much more to Geoffrey’s life than the law.

He was a talented all round sportsman. He was in the Marlborough School first tennis pair and was a fine schoolboy boxer. He deployed his tennis skills to great effect on the grass court he created at his home. There was the annual ritual of trying to find the metal court markers at the start of each summer, they having somehow buried themselves over the winter; once the markers were unearthed the lines were marked out, never completely straight but eventually a sort of rhomboid shaped playing area was arrived at. There were complaints from visiting players that Geoffrey was able to combine his considerable tennis skills with his knowledge of the eccentric shape of the court and the location of various dandelions that altered the balls bounce, all to devastating effect.

And he was a world champion in Sticke tennis, a type of Real tennis. He was world doubles champion. Geoffrey and James Norman ruled the world of Sticke tennis from their home court at Knightshayes, though Geoffrey, in his typical self-effacing manner, always said that he had a very skillful partner.

He loved cricket, both watching and playing. His membership of the MCC brought him happy days watching Test cricket at Lords. He particularly liked to watch the wristy Indian batsmen, though there was not much sign of their influence on his own technique when he batted. Not for Geoffrey getting off the mark by caressing a single to deep mid-off or nurdling the ball down to third-man. He would be eyeing up the deep midwicket boundary from the first ball that he received. Regardless of the length or line of the ball he would be intent on dispatching it into the undergrowth in that direction. He had an excellent eye and his natural sporting ability meant that he could be very effective, though if his friend Vic Marks was commentating on Test Match Special and was describing the sort of shot that Geoffrey frequently deployed to good effect I doubt that the word “classical” would be part of his description. Geoffrey’s admiration of Indian cricketers went so far as him buying what was said to be the great Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar’s cricket sweater at a Charity Dinner auction we attended. Now Gavaskar’s nickname was the little master and he was 5 feet 5 inches tall so it was surprising that the sweater fitted Geoffrey comfortably. Dismissing any doubters as to the sweater’s authenticity, Geoffrey said that he was sure it was genuine because of the curry stains down the front.

He loved playing at the beautiful cricket ground at Shobrooke, playing for the club for many years. He also raised his own side to play James Norman’s XI at Shobrooke, an event that gave much pleasure to many, even, I hope, to Jill and the other wives who provided such wonderful food on those occasions.

His well-known love of horseracing, particularly National Hunt steeple chasing, must have come from his Irish mother and grandmother. He was probably never happier than when at a National Hunt meeting; Cheltenham of course was a special favourite. 11 am, the Arkle Bar, on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. He used to say it was the best moment of the year. Every year his work diary would have an entry for the non-existent Cheltenham Crown Court for that week. He was very knowledgeable about the form and he tried to tutor me in the art of understanding it all. I went to the Newbury National Hunt meeting with Geoffrey a few times. Until I went, I hadn’t realised how much else apart from the races was involved in such a day out. The first time I was at Newbury with him I was there for 4 hours before I saw a horse and then it was on a TV screen hanging above the doubles bar, and the horse was racing at Warwick. The ever sociable Geoffrey enjoyed all of the many things that went with a day at the races.

His Irish heritage also meant that he was a great supporter of Irish rugby.

He had other appointments that he was particularly proud of. He was Director of a theatre company called Forkbeard Fantasy that was started by 2 University friends, Chris and Tim Britton. They describe themselves as an art group reveling in eccentric contraptions and kinetic sculptures and as architects of humour and invention. You can see why it appealed to Geoffrey; he described their work as “whacky”. Just up his street.

He was also a registered scrap dealer; probably the only person to have the two titles of Circuit Judge and registered scrap dealer simultaneously.

He loved mid-Devon. When he first moved here he lived in a cottage in Shobrooke, coincidentally, I am sure, a few yards away from the Red Lion. Then he and Jill moved to Stockleigh Pomeroy, where Jill was the post mistress as their delightful cottage had a post office in the front room. Then on to other homes in mid-Devon where he and Jill created beautiful houses and gardens. He loved the Devon countryside and the activities it enabled him to indulge in – making cider, planting trees, felling trees, chopping logs, bonfires.

So many sides to this charming, witty, generous man. But the most important part of his life to him was his family. To his wider family he was the much loved “Uncle Geoff”. Always fun to be had when he was around. He was so happy with Jill; so proud of the achievements of their children – Clara with her successful career with the British Fashion Council and Charlie, after he had exhausted every possible academic course, getting a job with a top law firm in London where there were hundreds of applicants for each place. He delighted in their successes. He was thrilled with the arrival of his grand daughter, the cherubic Jemima. There were many happy family holidays in Ireland and visits to Bantham, another part of Devon that he loved. He was a wonderful husband and father.

He bore his illness with typical courage and humour. He continued working full time until January this year, nearly 18 months after his treatment started. All possible avenues of treatment were explored, but it was not to be. And so he was laid to rest in the mid-Devon soil that he loved so much, at the Church in Shobrook where as a young man he had worked as assistant grave-digger. Although we have had to say goodbye to Geoffrey, we will not forget the many memories of happy times with him and the many laughs we had together; each of us will have our own special memories of our times with Geoffrey and we thank him for all that he did for us, for his friendship, his hospitality, his wit, his bon-homie and for enriching our lives in so many ways.