FEATURE: Defence barrister from Lavenham sheds light on 47-year career in new book
Barristers are often asked: “How can you defend someone you suspect is guilty?”.
The answer from William Clegg QC - top defence barrister and veteran of some of the country’s most sensational murder cases – might surprise you.
It is not the thought they might be guilty that makes him anxious about the outcome of the trial.
“If you want a proper justice system, people have to be defended, whoever they are,” he says.
“It’s when you really believe someone is innocent ... then you don’t sleep at night.”
Bill, as he is known out of court, has appeared for the defence in more than 100 murder trials.
They include the murder of Rachel Nickell and TV presenter Jill Dando.
Other cases range from Balkan war crimes to the News International phone hacking trial where he defended the company’s ex-head of security.
Now he has lifted the lid on his 47-year career and some of his most riveting cases.
His book, Under the Wig, has already soared into the best-seller list.
“I was anxious to try to demystify the profession and the way it operates,” says Bill, who lives in Lavenham with his artist wife, Gay.
By law, barristers cannot help a client they know is guilty to lie to the court. But, if they maintain their innocence, or admit killing but deny murder, they are entitled to a defence.
There are times even when a trial is over that Bill is still unsure if the defendant was guilty or not.
In one of the most chilling cases of the 1990s, his client Michael Stone was jailed for killing Lin Russell and her six-year-old daughter Megan, and attempting to murder her other daughter Jodie, nine, in a frenzied attack with a hammer.
“It was a particularly heinous crime and I find in such cases juries convict on much more flimsy evidence than in other cases,” he says.
“I think there is an unconscious wish to believe the right man is going to be locked up, rather than thinking a dangerous killer is still on the loose.
“He was convicted on what I thought was very unsatisfactory evidence. Clearly, he could have done it – but I genuinely don’t know one way or the other,” he says.
Bill successfully defended Colin Stagg – wrongly accused of stabbing Rachel Nickell to death on Wimbledon Common in front of her young son.
Later, during another case, he came face-to-face with the man, Robert Napper, who eventually admitted to the killing.
The acquittal on retrial of Private Lee Clegg, who had been convicted of a murder during the Northern Ireland troubles, was another success.
Bill, whose parents ran a flower shop in Westcliff-on-Sea, knew from his early teens that he wanted to be a barrister.
“I blame Perry Mason on TV, who never seemed to lose a case, although, sadly, that doesn’t transpose into real life,” he says.
His father wanted him to be a pharmacist instead, but, in 1991, was watching proudly – along with Bill’s former wife Wendy and children Joanna and Peter – as his son was sworn in as a QC.
Bill now fears for the future of his profession, believing legal aid cuts have left it in crisis and could cause real miscarriages of justice.
Even so, he would still advise young people with a burning ambition to be a barrister to follow their dream.
A good defence barrister, he says, must be able to establish a rapport with people from widely different backgrounds, assimilate a lot of information in a short time and sift out what matters.
“I think I had a natural flair for advocacy,” he adds, “and, as time goes on, I have developed a way of looking at a problem from different angles.”
He is greatly relieved there is no longer a death penalty in this country.
“I have acted for two cases summarised in the book where men convicted of murder and sent to prison for years were subsequently found to be innocent,” he says.
“Had they been executed, then an innocent man would have hanged.
“I have done death row cases in the Privy Council from the West Indies and it is a huge responsibility.
“I also think that it cannot be morally right to take the life of another person as punishment for a crime.”
Nothing convinces him more than the case of Barry George, who was jailed for the murder of Jill Dando.
“He was convicted of a murder he did not commit on the flimsiest of evidence,” says Bill, who defended him at his retrial.
After eight years in prison, Barry George was found not guilty and set free.
Bill’s wedding to Gay was booked on a date that fell in the middle of the trial.
The prosecution agreed to the court taking a long weekend. “It shows how members of the bar can behave kindly to each other even during hard-fought cases,” he says.
Cross-examining witnesses is another crucial part of a barrister’s role.
“I do think you need to be a little ruthless sometimes when cross-examining,” he says. “Your duty is to your client and, if it requires tough questioning, then that is what you must do.
“However, there is no excuse for a barrister to be rude or offensive. You must be firm and polite.”
In every case it is the jury who hold his client’s fate in their hands. “You try to read them and pick up their feelings, the evidence they are interested in, and the bits that might bore them,” he says.
“For many years, barristers were not allowed to be jurors, but the law has changed and now we can.
“I’ve never been called but wish I had. I would have loved it – I still would – to see a case from a different point of view.”
Ghost writers usually stay in the shadows. And barristers rarely make friends with clients.
Bill bucks both trends with ex-Sun reporter John Troup who was acquitted of paying a prison officer for information.
He gratefully credits him for recording his memories and helping write the book when he realised he had no time to do it all himself.
Bill, now also a part-time judge at the Old Bailey, has lived in Suffolk since 1988. He stays in London during the week, often working until 10pm, and comes home to recharge his batteries at weekends.
“I play racquetball – old man’s squash – at Sudbury Ormiston Academy,” he says. “That’s my way of unwinding.
“We also travel a lot, and have friends who are nothing to do with the law. That keeps you sane.”
Perry Mason was his inspiration but he now finds courtroom dramas irritating. The excepetion is Rumpole of the Bailey.
“It was written by a barrister and captures the romance of the profession. I’ve got the box set,” he says.