Magdalen president sues the Times for libel

Dinah Rose KC, the president of Magdalen College, is suing the Times for libel over a story about a complaint made against her to the Bar Standards Board.

The story was about her legal representation of the Cayman Islands government in their opposition to same-sex marriage, which attracted significant criticism, including from the Oxford LGBTQ Society and some Magdalen students. However, many lawyers, including the lawyer for the appellants in the Cayman case, supported her position. 

Colours Caribbean, a gay rights group, complained to the Bar Standards Board, the barristers’ watchdog, that Rose should have rejected the Cayman instruction by using the ‘foreign work’ exception to the cab rank rule. The cab rank rule says that if you are a self-employed barrister who receives instructions from a professional client that are appropriate taking into account your experience and field of practice, you must accept the instructions addressed specifically to you, irrespective of the identity of the client or nature of the case. There are some exceptions to this rule, including that if accepting the instructions would require the barrister to do any foreign work or act for a foreign lawyer.

In a story in the Times last year, the newspaper reported that the campaign group had said that Rose “must apologise” for “recklessness” for claiming that she was obliged to take the case under the cab rank rule. The story quoted the Bar Standards Board as telling Colours Caribbean that Rose’s interpretation of the rules “might possibly amount to evidence of recklessness” if “taken at its highest”.

The Bar Standards Board later issued a clarificatory public statement saying that it had not found Rose to have been “reckless” and it had not taken any regulatory action against her, and that they apologised if this had not been made “sufficiently clear”. They said that criticism of her for taking on the case was “misplaced” and that “barristers are not to be identified with the views of their clients”. The story in the Times was then taken down. 

The Bar Council, a representative body made up of around 115 barristers, described the Bar Standards Board handling of the case as “unacceptable and inexcusable”. They said the fact that Rose had no opportunity to comment or be heard before the Board published a decision document critical of her was “inconsistent with the fundamental principles of fairness”.

At the time of the Times story, Rose tweeted that Times Law “were warned that they were taking a quote from a press release out of context, without the decision being available. They pressed on and published it, regardless. I have instructed solicitors to bring libel proceedings.” Proceedings have now been issued against the Times and its legal editor, Jonathan Ames. 

Rose first acted for the Cayman Government in 2019 in the Cayman Court of Appeal. She successfully argued that the Court should overturn a first-instance judgement that ruled that two women should be allowed to marry. The two women, Chantelle Day and Vicky Bodden Bush, then took their case to the Privy Council in London, where Rose continued to represent the Cayman Government. The judicial committee of the Privy Council ruled in March 2022 that there was no right to same-sex marriage under the constitution of the Cayman Islands.

Rose was appointed as President of Magdalen College in February 2020, taking up her post in September. In a public statement, she said that she had disclosed her obligation to this case in her interview for the post. She added that the argument that her duties as a practising barrister were incompatible with being head of a college were based on “fundamental misconceptions of the nature of a barrister’s role.”

In February 2021, the Magdalen JCR passed a motion to put out a statement to affirm “the rights of the LGBTQ+ community worldwide (including their rights to marriage),the importance of not conflating the views of lawyers with those of their clients, the importance of equal legal representation for all and [to] reject any calls for Dinah Rose QC to resign.” 

The Oxford University LGBTQ Society and the Oxford African and Caribbean Society condemned Rose’s actions at the time, with the LGBTQ Society saying on Facebook, “We do not understand how a College President can proceed on a case which is causing harm and distress to a part of the very student body she is supposed to be representing and protecting.” 

When approached by the Guardian, Rose’s solicitor, Mark Lewis, said: “It is not appropriate for us to comment at this time.” The Times also declined to comment.


Image description: Magdalen College, Oxford

Image credit: By Ed Webster – Magdalen College, Oxford, CC BY 2.0,