Obituary: Manus McGuire,  Campaigning lawyer and founding partner of Thompsons Solicitors Scotland

Brian Manus McGuire, lawyer. Born: 24 July, 1939. Died: 23, July 2021, aged 81

Manus McGuire was ‘a fighter for working people and justice’

On July 23, 2021, one day before his 82nd birthday, B. Manus McGuire, the founding partner of Thompsons Solicitors Scotland, left this world and left an indelible mark on Scots Law. He defined what it is to be a Labour lawyer. He was the archetype and the inspiration for many of the campaigning lawyers who have blazed a trail on the Scottish legal scene in the last few decades.

First and foremost, he was a first-class lawyer; a fact that was sometimes overlooked by an opponent, to their grave error, because of his sometimes less than lawyerly external appearance – in an article in the The Herald in 1992 he was affectionately described as “a small somewhat dishevelled figure, a miner’s son and staunch Catholic from Armadale, who needs a quick fag to get his breath back after the games of five-a-side football he really shouldn’t still be playing”. His class, background and ideology shaped the lawyer he was driven to become.

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And yet, he didn’t set out to become a solicitor, not even when he attended the University of Glasgow as a mature student in 1970 aged 31 years. Manus attended both junior and senior seminary where he studied to become a White Father Missionary. He left in his final year before taking Orders and became a Probation Officer, working in the East End of Glasgow. He told many stories of those days including, his favourite, the men of a certain criminal family who claimed to him that they would go into the back room to discuss their upcoming endeavours in Latin in order that the lady of the house didn’t know what they were up to. In 1968 the Social Work (Scotland) Act introduced a major change to the probation service by introducing the Scottish Parole Board. Manus set his sights on one the top jobs and cannily recognised that a law degree would help his new career ambitions. What he didn’t expect was to fall in love with the law.

Despite having four young children, Manus sailed though university, picking up a few class prizes in the process, before graduating in 1973. Supporting a family as he attended university was however hard and corners had to be cut. One money-saving initiative Manus undertook was hitchhiking from West Lothian to Glasgow every day. This fact and the ubiquitous rain mac for which he and an equally disheveled TV detective were renowned, and that he wore sun and shine, resulted in a Sunday newspaper writing article entitled “The Day Colombo Hitched it to the Top”.

His career began as a criminal lawyer completing his legal apprenticeship, as it was then called, with Swift & Co. As an apprentice he was part of the legal team who defended the so-called Angel of Death, Jessie McTavish; a nurse who was convicted by a jury of a mercy killing of a patient. The conviction was quashed on appeal and Manus is credited by some as identifying the misdirection to the jury by the trial judge, Lord Robertson.

Manus’ first post as a new qualified solicitor was with Roxburgh District Council where he worked for five years. Even this early in his career, Manus made law by pursing a case that remains on the law books to this day. In Loyal Orange Order No 493 v Roxburgh District Council the Public Order Act 1963 was used (for the first time) to stop the Orange Order marching though the streets of the Scottish Borders. Manus’ daughter, Nuala McKinlay, is Head of Legal Services at Scottish Borders. Nuala said “My family and I grew up hearing about dad’s cases around the dinner table. He was, rightly proud of everything that he achieved. It is surreal to then hear the cases quoted by your law lecturers when you attend university. That creates an enormous sense of pride.”

In 1979 Manus’ career and life changed forever when he read a very short advert in the legal job section of the Scotsman newspaper. It read simply “socialist lawyer wanted...”. It may not be the sort of advert we would see these days but to Manus it felt as if the advert had been written specifically for him. The trade union law firm, Robin Thompson and Partners, the successor to the radical firm founded in 1921 by Harry Thompson, had decided to open a Scottish office and they were searching for someone to head up their Scottish arm.

As founding partner of Thompsons Scotland, along with his partner David Stevenson, Manus became the rebel with a cause. The many tributes paid to Manus repeat the same sentiment – he was a man of principle who was dedicated to fighting for justice for working people. Karen Mitchell, former legal director at the RMT trade union said “The man was a legend. He loved his family, his class and more than that was a brilliant lawyer.”

David Thompson, grandson of Harry and former Chair of Thompsons England said Manus “was a labour law expert whose heart and soul were in the labour movement. A great figure and character whose warmth, commitment and humanity shone through”. The former Chief Executive of Thompsons England, Steve Cavalier, said of Manus “He was a great man. A great Comrade. A great fighter for working people and for justice. A legend of Thompsons and the wider trade union movement”. Geoff Shearers, another former Thompsons CEO put simply: “He was always a troublemaker and I was proud to work with him.”

Manus carried that sense of justice, fight and troublemaking into the biggest campaign of his career, the 1984/85 miners’ strike. It was on Manus’ masterstroke advice that the Scottish strike was legal. Nicky Wilson, the President of the NUM described the “absolute respect and admiration” within which the union held Manus and that was “well deserved because we recognised his unfailing commitment to see fair representation and justice done”.

At the time when Industrial relations was militarised Manus stood up and never shirked from the fight. This was seen in the landmark case Henderson v Chief Constable of Fife Police in which Thompsons secured damages for female workers who were mistreated by the police during a sit-in protest.

The pinnacle of Manus’ career was Litster v Forth Ports in 1998. Aidan O’Neill QC said: “Despite its age, Litster remains after more than 30 years the leading case on the relationship of EU law and UK law in favour the protection of workers’ rights even where national law is more equivocal. That this is so is entirely due to Manus’ great instincts as a lawyer, and his absolute determination to see justice was done for his clients”

Perhaps more importantly, as well as being a great lawyer, Manus was a great boss. Manus’ family have received many warm messages from former staff at Thompsons. Former office manager at Thompsons, Liz Maguire said “Manus treated everyone the same. He was a good listener. He never pulled rank in the office.” Others remembered Manus’ contributions to social events, holding court with a cigarette a drink and a song. Wendy Durie, who is one of Thompsons Scotland’s senior partners, fondly remembers Manus at the firm’s annual training conference: “Manus was always the last partner standing at the end of the evening. Manus had time for everyone. His family was the centre of his world but he treated people outwith his family as if they were part of his extended family. He was completely down to earth, warm funny and great company”

After retiring from Thompsons Manus served as an Employment Judge for 15 years.

Manus was married to his wife’s Betty for 53 years. She sadly passed away 3 years ago. He is survived by his five children – Marie, Manus, Grace, Nuala and Patrick. He has 14 grandchildren.

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