Jan Luba QC pays tribute to a 'truly outstanding star'.
The untimely death of Stephen Knafler has robbed the modern legal profession of one of its truly outstanding stars. The few words that follow here cannot hope to do justice to him. Many more words and tributes will come in spades as soon as it is possible to hold a memorial to his life. The organisers should know now that they will need a huge venue. Steve was not simply admired by his contemporaries, or thought of fondly by his solicitors and their clients. Those who knew him simply loved him.
Steve entered legal practice as a solicitor with Anthony Gold in 1986. He was one of the founders of the firm’s pre-eminent housing team and his talents were such that he was swiftly made a partner. In the early 1990s, he switched to the Bar. He was called in 1993 and took pupillage with the masterful Richard Drabble QC. After that, he quickly burst onto the national legal scene with an impact not witnessed in his generation, before or since. In a prescient slip, a Court of Appeal transcriber in 1993 recorded ‘Mr R Drabble replaced by Mr S Knafler’.1White v Chief Adjudication Officer (1993) Times 2 August.
His rise was meteoric and richly deserved. He could have excelled in any field of law. To our good fortune, his passion became the representation of the homeless, the disabled, the disadvantaged and, ultimately, the wholly destitute. His unerring targets were injustice and abuse of state power.2See, for example, his speech at the 2013 Save Justice demonstration.
Steve cut his teeth as a barrister at 6 King’s Bench Walk, then the chambers of Sibghat Kadri QC. It was a hothouse of young, progressive legal talent. His work rate there was incredible, earning him the nickname ‘the machine’. Within just a few months of ending pupillage, he was gaining prominence across a range of social welfare specialisms. As early as 1994, he was briefed, without a leader, for an evicted tenant before a formidable constitution of the Court of Appeal.3Murray v Aslam (1995) 27 HLR 284.
That was simply the first of hundreds of his reported cases in the senior courts.
And Steve was not just earning a reputation for his impressive court work. In 1996, he wrote a book about housing disrepair4Remedies for Disrepair and Other Building Defects, Sweet & Maxwell, 1996.
that was a model of what a legal textbook should be. In 1997, he established and became editor of the Community Care Law Reports. That was the start of a long and successful partnership with LAG.
By the late 1990s, his legal skills were making waves in the development of public law more generally.5He had already been a contributor to De Smith, Woolf and Jowell’s Judicial Review of Administrative Action.
His output was prodigious. The Law Reports were filling up with his cases. Then, in 1999, he and I were by chance on opposite sides in a complex housing case at the Central London County Court. I recall it as the first time I had seen him in action. He was spellbinding. Of course, he won.6An error later corrected by the Court of Appeal! Rizwan Ali Bhai and another v Black Roof Community Housing Association Limited  2 All ER 865.
But I was hooked. Steve was exactly what the expanding Housing Team at Garden Court Chambers (GCC) needed.
He joined GCC in 2000. Of course, his practice flourished. But so did all his other legal work. He and the wonderful Sue Willman and Stephen Pierce co-wrote Support for Asylum-seekers: a guide to legal and welfare rights for LAG. Steve lectured widely and contributed to legal training. Our supposed partnership in co-writing the third edition of Repairs: tenants’ rights was a joke. While I was still thinking about possible chapter structures, Steve was delivering copy for the whole book. As his introduction charmingly acknowledged, all I had been able to contribute was a ‘friendly eye’ on the book’s production!
Over his 16 years at GCC, Steve was the consummate barrister. A charming and compelling advocate. A brilliant legal mind. For his instructing solicitors, he was wonderful to work with. Superb with clients. To his many pupils, he was a caring and masterful teacher. For his clerks, he was a dream – fast, efficient and constantly in demand.
Lady Hale and Stephen Knafler QC at LAG’s Legal Aid at 70 conference in April 2019 (photo: Richard Gray/Rugfoot Photography)
To those working with him, Steve’s ‘success sausage-machine’ was a wonder to behold – especially among those of us striving for one or two winning ‘bangers’ per decade! He cleared vast amounts of work because the astonishing quality of his written material, or the simple sight of his name on pleadings, brought early settlement from sensible opponents. His appointment as QC in 2010 was inevitable and long overdue. Likewise, his election as joint head of chambers.
Time and Steve had a special relationship. His days never seemed limited to 24 hours. He always appeared able to do at least three things at once. But however hard he worked, he was always kind, thoughtful and ready to help others. Of course, all this led to much wider recognition, at the LALYs and elsewhere.
By 2016, Steve was on the move again, this time to join the legal world’s glitterati at Landmark Chambers, the home of his former pupil master. There Steve maintained his commitment, zeal and cutting edge – running numerous cases in the Supreme Court and elsewhere for migrants, asylum-seekers and many others. He mastered huge volumes of casework but also had time to produce two more formidable practitioner textbooks for LAG.7Adult Social Care Law and Children’s Social Care Law.
In 20198Simawi v Haringey LBC  EWCA Civ 1770; December 2019/January 2020 Legal Action 28.
and 2020, Steve was back to housing. It was typical of him that the two Court of Appeal cases he handled earlier this year cemented the full protection of tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 crisis.9Hackney LBC v Okoro  EWCA Civ 681;  4 WLR 85; July/August 2020 Legal Action 50 and Arkin v Marshall  EWCA Civ 620;  1 WLR 3284; June 2020 Legal Action 44, and see his writing about social care and COVID-19, for example, ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020 – adult social care and assessing needs’ (Landmark Chambers, 15 April 2020).
This rightly led to his becoming a Times ‘lawyer of the week’.10Linda Tsang, ‘Lawyer of the week: Stephen Knafler, QC, who acted for Kevin Okoro in Hackney eviction case’, Times, 11 June 2020.
To many of us, he is the ‘lawyer of the century’.
It was little surprise when, in early September 2020, he joined Doughty Street Chambers. This was not only a return to the ‘progressive’ fold but inevitably would have seen another flowering of his practice.
Many successful barristers find their whole lives absorbed by their work. But not Steve. No one quite understands how, but he managed to enjoy a richly varied and satisfying ‘other’ life. He loved the outdoors. He was a keen fell and mountain walker. After completing the Three Peaks Challenge
, he was back at work the next day! He was an accomplished musician, music lover, gardener and poet. He recently trained as a baritone singer. A few years ago, he bought a small farm in the Lake District, in the shadow of Blencathra and at the convergence of multiple footpaths, serving as his springboard to the open country he adored.
He had a keen sense of humour, a disarming and charming grin, and a zest for life. He was always the tanned epitome of fitness and good health. His wholly unexpected and tragic death, at the age of only 60, was a devastating blow to all who knew him.
It is a true benefit of the modern age that those who never got to see Steve ‘doing his stuff’ in court can still see him in action in the Supreme Court.11For example, the morning session on 7 October 2019 of the hearing in R (DN (Rwanda)) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKSC 7;  AC 698; September 2020 Legal Action 19.
Even after his death, watching him for five minutes provides a masterclass in superb advocacy.
However much he thrived in his work, Steve’s greatest and proudest achievements were always his three daughters, Amy, Harriet and Kate, from his marriage to Sarah. It is some 20 years since his girls and mine played together in our respective homes, but seeing them again at his funeral, and listening to their descriptions of their time with their father, reminded me just how lucky a dad he was. I have no doubt that, despite all the other amazing things he did during his life, they are his greatest legacy.
Stephen is survived by his parents Eve and Stan, by his ex-wife Sarah, and by his partner Shirley Turner.
If you wish to add your own tribute to Stephen, share a photo of him, or make a donation to one of the two charities nominated by his family (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Bail for Immigration Detainees), go to: https://stephenknafler.muchloved.com/