Isabella Forshall KC – a brilliant rebel with a cause – An obituary by Helena Kennedy KC

There were gasps of disbelief and horror when the news of Issy Forshall’s sudden death circulated through her chambers at Doughty Street and then the Old Bailey. This engaging, warm and hugely popular woman was everyone’s favourite barrister. She was so full of life, so clever and quick-witted, and yet so utterly self-effacing – an unusual trait in a successful lawyer - and the grief was tangible. She had been on a long-planned vacation in Argentina with her husband, Judge Timothy Greene, visiting their adult son, Arthur, when she collapsed and died on a train travelling from Cordoba to Buenos Aires. It was  without forewarning and just a week after her 67th birthday . 

Isabella Forshall (Issy to all) was born in Godalming in 1956 and brought up in the family home near Midhurst, the middle one of five children. Her extended family was comfortable, upper middle-class, her father a City stockbroker, her mother a traditional Home Counties wife, but from an early age Issy showed she was cut from a different cloth. She was educated at a succession of public schools from Millfield to Sherbourne, and a few others thereafter, all of which were unsuited to her spirited ways. Issy would tell stories of her naughtiness and determined rejection of absurd rules, leading to mutually agreed partings or expulsions, which left her parents bewildered.  Her instinctive resistance to authoritarianism and injustice in any form, and her disdain for class snobbery made her a rebel and this trait continued to inform her approach to life in general but especially to her professional work. She wanted to know the rationale for any encroachments on liberty and not just her own. She always wanted to know why people behaved as they did and why the law was such a blunt instrument.

Despite the derailments in her schooling, she managed through sheer academic brilliance and a transfer to the more congenial local state school, Chichester High School for Girls, to get into Newnham College, Cambridge to study English and became politically active as a student there. It was the seventies and a time of considerable social upheaval. The women’s movement was taking root and anti-racism and gay rights were on the agenda. Issy had no doubt as to where her sympathies lay. When she graduated, Issy decided to study for the Bar and, once she qualified in 1982, she joined the “socialist collective” called Wellington Street, which had been set up by Lord (Tony)Gifford in the mid seventies.  She became a pupil barrister in their criminal law team. Fees were shared and criminal work was focussed on defending those arrested in political protest and there was no shortage of that - from Anti Fascist rallies to the Miners’ Strike. My own work overlapped with Issy’s at this time as she became involved with the defence of the women who had set up a peace camp at Greenham Common, protesting the presence of American nuclear missiles at an airbase on British soil. I will always remember how courageous and indomitable she was, spending week after week down amongst the women, fighting the constant arrests of protestors in the local Magistrates Court. She went to Berlin and East Germany to speak at a European Nuclear Defence (END) conference about the experience of representing the Greenham Women. When the Miners’ Strike took place from 1984-5 she stayed with miners’ families up in Ollerton and spent every day in court, pressing home their right to strike. She met her husband Tim Greene, then a solicitor, while representing travellers at Salisbury Magistrates court, in a case which became known as the Battle of the Beanfield. She also had a diet of Animal Liberation Front cases, which she felt required a shift in her own diet away from bacon sandwiches and other animal products for a while but in truth she remained partial to a bacon sarnie till the end.

In 1990 she joined us at Doughty Street Chambers where she gained a fearsome reputation as a defender of those considered indefensible. She represented Charles Bronson, not the actor, but a notorious prisoner who took fellow inmates and members of the prison staff hostage, attacked a score of prison officers and took part in roof top protests. He was utterly devoted to Issy, and regularly sent her his drawings which filled her room in chambers. Another of her grateful client was a pro-nudity activist called Vincent Bethell who was prosecuted for public nuisance because he refused to wear clothes as he roamed the streets and went about his business. He would arrive in chambers naked but Issy didn’t turn a hair and when his trial started Issy persuaded a very reluctant judge that he had the right to remain naked throughout the proceedings at Southwark Crown Court. The judge did issue the warning that the ladies on the jury may wish to avert their gaze as he walked from the dock to the witness box. Issy’s ability to communicate with a jury was something to behold. She was so articulate and precise in her language yet down-to-earth and non-legalistic. She could talk to a jury as if she was in their own homes. She made nudity sound like something we should all embrace, come rain or shine; it was simply a harmless display of freedom of expression, she explained, and Mr Bethell was acquitted.

Issy was always incredibly modest about her own abilities, asserting that her role in court victories was of no significance. She needed cajoling and endless persuasion to get her to apply for silk, a process which requires some acknowledgment of one’s own talent but this was something she found difficult. Apparently, when asked by the selection panel if she had anything to add she responded: “Well, if I was in your position, I don’t think I would give it to me”. Happily, the panel recognised her undoubted ability and recommended her for appointment to the rank of Queen’s Counsel in 2010.

In silk, her defence practice covered murders, terrorism, sexual offences but above all she specialised in representing children and young people in the criminal justice system. This was her forte.

The repressive adult responses that were used to crush her own challenging behaviour at school had led to other transgressions in her teenage years and in later life she was happy to talk about being caught shoplifting from Biba, the very trendy Kensington emporium, in the company of a school friend, who insisted on the police recording her with her full nomenclature of The Honourable Miss ….. In Issy’s telling of the event the policeman was not impressed and said neither of them seemed very honourable to him. However, Issy knew that none of her adolescent conduct was ever rooted in wickedness but being labelled a problem provided a temptation to fulfil expectations. She brought this knowledge into her work in the courts. It was her own experiences of those transitional years that developed Issy’s deep understanding of teenage rebellion and alienation and her extraordinary empathy for young people who were in trouble. Empathy was one of Issy’s hallmarks. Her instinctive kindness extended to all of us who worked with her. She once spent eight hours at a far-flung hospital with one of our colleagues who had a miscarriage in the middle of a trial. But it was the special connection she had with the young that made her one of the leading lawyers in youth offending. She had no difficulty establishing a rapport with the most truculent young drug-dealer or aggressive skinhead who had been seduced into gang culture; her skill in establishing trust and listening to their stories with care and insight led to legal reform. She knew that many court procedures were particularly inappropriate when dealing with the young and vulnerable and argued for the use of age-appropriate language and a different court set-up for juveniles. She was clear that parcelling people off into endless custody when they were still not adults was counterproductive. Through careful legal argument in a succession of cases and by securing proper expert assessments of her clients’ cognitive skills, Issy played a vital role in the incremental development of the best court treatment and sentencing practice for children and young people.   

Even after her death, she has received tributes for her work in the seminal case of ZA v R (2023) in the Court of Appeal where her young client’s sentence was overturned, and he was given a greatly reduced term of detention. Issy had argued the case some months ago but the Judgement was only recently published. As a result of Issy’s outstanding work the Court of Appeal has set out a checklist of principles and procedures for lawyers and judges, when undertaking complex cases involving children or youth offenders. The Judgement ends with the words:

“The court heard last week of the very sad passing of Isabella Forshall KC. This judgement has drawn extensively on the comprehensive oral and written submissions which she made to us. We extend our sincere condolences to her family and to her friends and colleagues.” 

Issy’s whole professional life was about righting wrongs and speaking for those who had little voice within the system of criminal justice. She was much loved by everyone who knew her and her legacy is the ambition of most lawyers - she not only changed lives but she changed the law.

Issy is survived by her husband Timothy Greene, her children Mary and Arthur, her grandson, Aydin, as well as her three brothers and her sister, the well known artist, Kate Boxer.  

- Baroness Helena Kennedy KC

To leave your condolences, please visit Issy's memorial page here.

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