Obituary: Manus McGuire, gifted lawyer who flourished as the ‘rebel with a cause’

Died: July 23, 2021.

BRIAN Manus McGuire, the founding partner of Thompsons Solicitors Scotland, who has died one day before his 82nd birthday, was a first-class lawyer. This attribute, however, was sometimes overlooked by his opponents, to their cost, because of his sometimes less-than-lawyerly appearance.

In a Herald article in 1992 he was affectionately described “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 labour-law lawyer he was driven to become. He defined what it is to be a socialist lawyer. He was the archetype and the inspiration for many of the campaigning lawyers who have blazed across the legal scene in the last few decades.

Manus carried his sense of justice, fight and troublemaking into the biggest campaign of his career, the 1985/85 miners’ strike. It was on his master-stroke advice that the Scottish strike was legal. NUM president Nicky Wilson described the “absolute respect and admiration” with which the union held Manus. It was “well deserved, because we recognised his unfailing commitment to see fair representation and justice done”.

At a time when industrial relations were being militarised, Manus never shirked from a fight. This was seen in the landmark 1988 case, Henderson v Chief Constable of Fife, in which Thompsons secured damages for female workers who were mistreated by the police during a sit-in protest.

The pinnacle of Manus’s career was Litster v Forth Dry Dock and Engineering 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’s great instincts as a lawyer, and his absolute determination to see justice was done for his clients”.

Manus had not set out to become a solicitor, not even when he attended the University of Glasgow as a mature student in 1970, aged 31. He had 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 in Glasgow’s East End. His favourite story from those days related to 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 so that the lady of the house did not 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 of 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, he sailed though university, picking up a few class prizes before graduating in 1973. Supporting a family as he attended university was however, hard, and corners had to be cut.

One money-saving initiative was to hitchhike from West Lothian to Glasgow everyday. This, and the ubiquitous rain mac for which he and an equally dishevelled TV detective were renowned, which he wore regardless of the weather led to a Sunday newspaper article on him that was headlined, “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 that defended the so-called ‘Angel of Death’, Jessie McTavish, a nurse who was convicted by a jury of the mercy killing of a patient. The conviction was quashed on appeal in January 1975; Manus is credited by some as identifying the misdirection by the trial judge, Lord Robertson.

Manus’s first post as a newly-qualified solicitor was with Roxburgh District Council, where he worked for five years. He 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 Borders.

Manus’s daughter, Nuala McKinlay, Chief Legal Officer at Scottish Borders Council, said: “My family and I grew up hearing about dad’s cases around the dinner table. He was rightly proud of everything that 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’s career and life changed forever when he read a brief advert in the Scotsman’s legal jobs section. It read simply, “socialist lawyer wanted.” It may not be the sort of advert we would see these days but Manus felt as if it had been written specifically for him.

The trade union law firm, Robin Thompson and Partners – successor to the radical firm founded in 1921 by Harry Thompson – were searching for someone to set up their Scottish office.

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 union, said: “The man was a legend. He loved his family, his class, and, more than that, was a brilliant lawyer.”

With responsibility for client relations, his connections among trade union leaders were described in that 1992 Herald article as “unsurpassed” and his commitment to trade unionism “as virtually genetic”.

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: “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 it simply – “he was always a trouble-maker and I was proud to work with him.”

Manus was also a great boss. Liz Maguire, former office manager at Thompsons, said “Manus treated everyone the same. He was a good listener. He never pulled rank in the office.”

Others remembered Manus’s contributions to social events, holding court with a fag and drink and a song. Wendy Durie, a Thompsons Scotland senior partner, remembers him at the firm’s annual training conference.

“Manus was always the last partner standing at the end of the evening. He had has 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 he served as employment judge for 15 years.

He is survived by his children, Marie, Manus, Grace, Nuala and Patrick, and 14 grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by his wife Betty, to whom he was married for 53 years.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992