I first met George Laurence 35 years ago today (18 June 1979) in the rarefied splendour of the Moses Room at the House of Lords. (I was 24 and thought he was ‘gorgeous’.) I was one of the petitioners against Devon County Council’s original Dartmoor Commons Bill (it would have given excessive powers to the commoners) and this was the first day of the select committee hearing by five Lords.
The Ramblers and Dartmoor Preservation Association had also petitioned and they were represented by George (who was not yet a QC). Another petitioner, the British Horse Society, was represented by Robin Purchas, and the promoter, Devon County Council, by Roy Vandermeer QC.
As petitioners, we didn’t have much impact on that first commons bill (though it was, fortunately, rejected the following year when Anthony Steen MP talked it out at second reading in the House of Commons, forcing a vote which the promoters lost). But since then George has been involved in just about every high-profile case concerning public rights of way, commons and village greens, and he has been responsible for many ground-breaking victories.
There is no doubt that the law concerning our rights of passage would be very different had George not deployed his immense intellect and brilliant argument in its interpretation. With his incisive mind and impeccable use of English, he is a formidable opponent, as well as one of the most caring and human people I know. I love his chatty calls, out of the blue, on a Friday afternoon.
George was born and brought up in South Africa and read law as a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford. He was called to the bar in 1972 and became a QC in 1991. There is still a beguiling touch of South Africa in his accent.
He played a vital role in defending and clarifying the definition of ‘as of right’, the legal concept which enables us to claim rights of way and village greens on the basis of 20 years’ use nec vi, nec clam, nec precario (without force, secrecy or permission). The application for a village green at Sunningwell in Oxfordshire, and the path claim at Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire, which were won in the House of Lords in 1999 and 2007, are just two examples.
I am immensely grateful to George for giving me so much help and support over the years. In particular, he represented me in the Court of Appeal against East Sussex County Council, which had failed to reopen the blocked ‘Hoogstraten’ footpath, Framfield 9, and was instead promoting a diversion. I owe it to George that I won and, clad in a hard hat, could free the path with bolt-cutters.
And, in the case Herrick v Kidner, he acted for Peter Kidner and achieved the reopening of Barcroft Lane at South Petherton in Somerset, after it had been blocked by formidable gates.
He has frequently acted for the Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers and been generous with his time. He has been involved in nearly all the main cases which have established the law for claiming paths, interpreting inclosure awards, dealing with path diversions in the magistrates’ court, claiming village greens and saving commons from deregistration. And of course there have been hundreds more cases in which we haven’t been involved.
George is not always with us though; he sees merit in being able to argue a case from both sides. Consequently we have suffered some serious setbacks on village greens recently. However, I am delighted that George is back in the fold for the forthcoming case in the supreme court on a new green at Newhaven, East Sussex, and I hope that once again he triumphs.
George isn’t always in his wig and gown. He is extremely sociable and enjoys a party.
He spends as much time as he can with his family and he loves walking.
And he very sweetly visited my mother at Wrango.
I am relieved to say that George shows no signs of retiring, and I hope he will continue to influence the law for the better for many years to come.