On Law

Reading for the bar

Courtroom memoirs reveal fascinating details of high-profile cases, waspish views of politicians, as well as a QC who solved a notorious murder

Joshua Rozenberg

Why do legal types think we should be interested in their memoirs? The shocking behaviour of some long-forgotten judge is usually of little interest today. Stories about the characters they met at the bar often fail to amuse.

An exception is Under the Wig by William Clegg QC (Canbury Press). Until his retirement last year, Clegg was the go-to criminal defence barrister. He even solved a murder case, reasoning that the man who killed Rachel Nickell in 1992 was not his client Colin Stagg, who was acquitted, but another client, Robert Napper, who admitted Nickell’s manslaughter in 2008.

Clegg’s book is readable because of the clients he defended: Barry George, cleared in 2008 of murdering Jill Dando, and Anthony Sawoniuk, convicted in 1999 of murdering Jews in Nazi-occupied Belarus. Indeed, the book was ghost-written by yet another of his clients —John Troup, a former Sun journalist cleared of conspiracy.

Retired judges often dedicate their memoirs to their grandchildren. A recent example is Leaving the Arena, by Sir David Keene (Bloomsbury Publishing). The former appeal court judge includes vignettes about how the prime minister came to stay at their French holiday home (Keene had been in the same chambers as Cherie Blair) and how to stay awake in court on a summer afternoon (smelling salts). But no beans are spilled.

Playing off the Roof and Other Stories by Simon Brown (Marble Hill) professes to be just a string of reminiscences from a man who for half a century has lived in the same house, been married to the same woman, driven the same sort of car, holidayed in the same chalet and played golf at the same club. “You must be bored out of your mind,” a younger player recently told him.

But Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood has a lively style, recalling visits to MI6 outstations when he was Intelligence Services Commissioner and recounting the excuse proffered by George Carman QC when he needed to sober up after a night spent drinking and gambling: “‘My Lord,’ said George, ‘I’m so sorry, I had understood your Lordship to have said yesterday that we would not be sitting until 11.15 today.’”

Brown presided over the trials of two defendants accused of targeting Jews: in each case, Jewish jurors were invited to stand down. Nobody in court knew that Brown’s parents were both Jewish and he saw no reason to tell them. “My religion has never been of the least interest to me,” he writes.

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood has a lively style, recalling visits to MI6 outstations when he was Intelligence Services Commissioner

Lord Dyson, who overlapped with Brown in the Supreme Court, is extremely interested in his Jewish forebears. The opening chapters of A Judge’s Journey by John Dyson (Hart Publishing) give us a detailed account of how his family came to the UK. But he also deals with contemporary issues — telling us just what he thinks of the “disastrous” Liz Truss, the lord chancellor who failed to support judges against newspaper claims that they were “enemies of the people”.

As Master of the Rolls, Dyson dismissed an appeal on behalf of Tony Nicklinson, a man who was paralysed for seven years after suffering a catastrophic stroke at the age of 51. Nicklinson wanted the courts to say it would be lawful for a doctor to kill him or to help him kill himself. Dyson refused. “My view as a private citizen is that assisted suicide should be permitted, subject to stringent safeguards. But that did not influence my conclusion that, as a matter of law, decriminalising assisted suicide was not a matter for the judges.”

Dyson also reports some of the manoeuvrings that stopped Lady Hale becoming president of the Supreme Court in 2012, which would have given her an additional five years in the top job. But for the full story we must turn to the 2009-15 volume of Lord Hope’s Diaries (Avizandum Publishing). Hope, then the court’s deputy president, served on the selection committee that rejected Hale and appointed Lord Neuberger.

“He will be a real pleasure to work with,” Hope told his diary. “Brenda, on the other hand, seemed to be on the defensive for much of the time. The picture that she presents of the relationship between men and women is not one which most women share. This is a pity, as she is such an excellent lawyer and does so much that is good for the court … Her time will no doubt come, but not now.”

When Hope was nearing retirement age, Lord Mance applied to succeed him as deputy president. At interview, Hale “outshone him by a very distinct margin”, Hope writes. She was also better-known, even in 2013: “I am world-famous,” he records her as saying.

Lawyers are aghast that Hope has broken so many confidences in the five volumes of his diaries. In preparing them for publication, he seems to have redacted very few names. Hope’s writings are a valuable historical resource but colleagues who thought that judges could be trusted not to publish confidential conversations must be relieved that legal memoirs rarely become bestsellers.

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