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Joel Joffe (1932 - 2017)

Joel Joffe CBE was the young lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela at the infamous 1963-4 Rivonia Trial. Exiled to Britain in 1965, he worked at a fledgling insurance company to support his family, which grew to become Allied Dunbar. Involved with Oxfam for 20 years and Chair from 1995 to 2001, he was awarded the CBE in 1999. In 2000, he became a Labour peer as Baron Joffe of Liddington. In later life, he was a vigorous campaigner for assisted dying for the terminally ill.

Asked what drove him to realise the extraordinary achievements of his life, Joel Joffe said it was a passion for justice and a desire to help those less fortunate than himself. Whether that injustice was apartheid, poverty, terminal illness or human rights, Joffe campaigned with a lawyer's forensic eye for detail, self-deprecating humour, and a fearless approach to authority.

Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a mother born in Palestine and a father born in Lithuania, Joel Goodman Joffe grew up in a Jewish household before being sent to Catholic boarding school. He studied business and then law at the University of Witwatersrand. While articled to a big commercial firm, Joffe began taking on cases for poor people for free. When the partners of the firm objected, Joffe resigned and went into partnership with an elderly communist called Fred Zwarenstein and a lawyer called James Kantor, whose brother-in-law represented the African National Congress. 

This was 1960, a turbulent time in South African history. On 21st March, there had been a massacre at Sharpeville - where police had opened fire on unarmed protestors killing 69 people. Around the same time, the government declared a state of emergency, arresting political leaders. Many people began leaving South Africa at that time, and Joffe booked a passage to Australia where he intended to emigrate with his artist wife Vanetta, and two baby daughters Deborah and Lisa.

James Kantor's brother-in-law, Harold Wolpe, the ANC's lawyer, had been arrested but managed to escape from South Africa by bribing a warder. Kantor was then arrested. Joffe agreed to delay his passage to Australia to wind up Kantor's affairs. While he was doing so, Winnie Mandela approached him - would he take on the defence of her husband Nelson? Mandela and eight other ANC members were to be tried for 221 acts of sabotage aimed at overthrowing the apartheid system. "I told her I'd be glad to," Joffe recalled.

Joffe remembered meeting Mandela in the visiting rooms of Pretoria Jail, where the prisoner had been flown in from Robben Island. Mandela was wearing sandals, a torn shirt, and shorts - the uniform of a black prisoner under apartheid. "He walked into the room totally unselfconscious and just assumed control, and we all sat back and waited to be told what we should do," Joffe recalled.

In the book Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described Joffe's role in the Rivonia Trial, as "the General behind the scenes in our defence". The rooms where Joffe was allowed to meet Mandela were bugged and the lawyer described how Mandela would write key names and information on a piece of paper and then the men would burn them in an ashtray.

"For me it was about saving the lives of these wonderful people," Joffe recalled on Desert Island Discs. "But that was not the main objective of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues… They wanted to put the Government [of South Africa] in the dock.

"The nine members of the ANC were the finest people I had ever met - such courage, such integrity, so committed… They were in it for the people. It was a great privilege to defend them."

Eight of the nine defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Nelson Mandela would spend the next twenty five years and eight months in prison.

In 1965, after the trial, Joffe was offered an Exit Visa - the chance to leave South Africa safely as long as he never returned - and the family made plans once again to emigrate. Australia refused the family as "undesirable immigrants", leaving them in limbo - their luggage already sitting on Sydney Docks. 

Years later, invited to do a lecture tour on philanthropy, Joffe was delighted to start every talk with saying "It's a nice change to be invited to Australia rather than being rejected…"

Although he would later feel deeply patriotic towards the UK, Joffe washed up on British shores by default, and began looking for work to support his family. He was unable to practice law without retraining - unthinkable with two small children. After three difficult months in North London, a friend called Mark Weinberg offered him work at the insurance firm he had just started, Abbey Life. Weinberg and Joffe later founded Hambro Life Assurance which became Allied Dunbar, one of the world's most successful insurance companies. Joffe modestly refused to take any credit for its success.

"I always felt a bit guilty about earning lots of money and not doing anything," he said. His way of paying back was to become deeply involved in charity and philanthropic work. Hambro Life was one of the first British companies to give a percentage of profits to a charitable trust, and Joffe also set up the Per Cent Club which encouraged other companies to do the same. Over the years, over 150 household name companies have visited Allied Dunbar's charitable trust. He also set up his own Joffe Charitable Trust which played a significant role in supporting new initiatives for improving the effectiveness of many charities. 

Around the time of the birth of his third daughter, Abigail, in 1976, Oxfam approached Joffe to create a special life insurance policy where the charity would be a partial beneficiary. The policy was unsuccessful, but led to Joffe becoming an Oxfam trustee in 1980.  He held various positions including Honorary Secretary, Chair of the Executive Committee and from 1995 Chair of Oxfam His background in business meant he was determined to make Oxfam an organisation that was as efficient as it was passionate. "Passion and good intentions by themselves are no value to anyone without effective implementation," he said.

He was never afraid of big decisions, preparing the report that recommended that Oxfam leave Barclays Bank and being part of the delegation that went to the bank to explain to Barclays why the decision had been made.

When Oxfam was investigated by the Charity Commission in 1990 for its commitment to campaigning work as well as more straightforward charitable interests, he was part of the negotiating team that defended Oxfam's position - a stance that only a few years later under a new Chief Charity Commissioner became completely acceptable. He also helped to resolve a key dispute involving the staff at the Oxfam shop in St John's Wood, who had gone on strike after accusing Oxfam of being unfair to Israel in a leaked internal discussion paper. Joffe, himself Jewish, went to see the Chief Rabbi to clarify Oxfam's position. He was acutely interested in the ways that business could be more socially responsible, and a passionate advocate of Fair Trade, which Oxfam pioneered.

Colleagues report that his greatest contribution to Oxfam was made during his period as Chair from 1995. He used his exceptional mix of acute intelligence and great personal warmth to challenge Oxfam's work and organisation, often only reaching conclusions after intense questioning and debate. Once convinced, he gave his absolute and unwavering support to the volunteers or staff who were to take things forward. 

As Chair, he was tireless in helping to make Oxfam more effective and providing the best return on donors' contributions. He continued and concluded the reform of the Charity's governance, moving from a plethora of committees and a fifty-person Council to a highly effective Board of 12. Using his legal skills, in 1995/6 he also played a key role in setting up Oxfam International - the bringing together of the ten organisations using the Oxfam name around the world.

From 1997 to 1999, he was a member of the Royal Commission for the Care of the Elderly - a manifesto commitment of the 1997 Labour Government to find solutions to a dysfunctional care system.

In 1999, he was awarded the CBE by Tony Blair's government and on 16 February 2000 he was made a Labour peer, raised to the peerage as Baron Joffe of Liddington in the County of Wiltshire. In the Lords, he was hugely committed to campaigning for terminally ill people to have the right to end their lives, proposing a private members bill on the subject in 2003 and 2005.

From 2000 to 2004, he was also Chair of the Giving Campaign, which encourages the wealthiest in society to give to charity - and notes that less well off generally donate a much higher proportion of their income. From 1974 to 1993 he had been Founding Trustee and then Chairman of the Allied Dunbar Charitable Trust. His own charity, the Joffe Charitable Trust, gave hundreds of thousands of pounds every year to mainly African causes Joffe selected partly on the basis they were unfashionable or difficult issues - like abortion for rape victims in parts of Africa or Female Genital Mutilation awareness projects - and less likely to draw financial support from elsewhere. From the mid 1980s, he was also patron and trustee on a number of African and development-related charities.

But while he always remained steadfastly loyal to the country and continent of his birth, Joffe also felt deeply patriotic towards his adopted country, Britain - valuing in particular its tranquil countryside, democracy, tolerance and his favourite pastime, tennis.