Gruesome murders, national scandals and a profession in crisis - Suffolk barrister’s 47 years in law
- Credit: Archant
One of Britain’s top murder case lawyers, who finds “equilibrium” in rural Suffolk, has warned the justice system is in crisis.
William Clegg QC, who has been involved with over 100 murder cases, said cuts to legal aid meant only people with private incomes would be able to work in the profession – undoing 40 years of progress in workforce diversity.
The respected barrister, who lives in Lavenham, made his warnings in an EADT interview promoting his new memoirs Under the Wig A Lawyer’s Stories of Murder, Guilt and Innocence, which was released on Thursday, climbing straight into the top 20 non-fiction best sellers list.
Mr Clegg said he wrote the book to address misconceptions about the legal profession and to make it easier to understand. “The object was really to demystify the profession and explain to the public the work we do,” he added. “I wanted to tell people who had no connection with the law, what it was like to become a barrister and how the system operates.”
Interspersed with top tips and professional insights, the book also delves into some of the standout cases from Mr Clegg’s 47-year career, including the murder of Jill Dando, Colin Stagg’s trial for the Wimbledon Common murder and Rebekah Brooks’ phone hacking trial.
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Mr Clegg, who also represented the serial killer Robert Napper, whose victims included former Colchester girl Rachel Nickel, said he felt no doubts about taking on terrible cases as it was a central tenet of the justice system.
“It’s bred into you from the first day as a barrister that you have to accept the next brief you are offered, whatever it maybe,” he added. “Any criminal justice system depends on people getting a fair trial and that only happens if they are properly represented, however heinous the crime.”
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While Mr Clegg’s working week is spent in London as head of chambers at 2 Bedford Row, he and his wife spend their leisure time in Suffolk, where they have owned a home for 30 years.
“What I enjoy about Suffolk is it’s a complete contrast to London,” he said. “The sense of change that I get returning to Suffolk does a great deal to maintain my equilibrium.”
Mr Clegg, who also has lived in Leavenheath and Cornard Tye, said he chose to move to Lavenham “because I wanted to be in a village with a thriving community”. “It’s got pubs, a wine bar, a butcher and baker and a general store,” he added. “It’s a place where there’s no need to leave all weekend.”
Although most of his cases are in the capital, Mr Clegg has also presided as a judge at Ipswich Crown Court and made a rare appearance as a prosecutor at Chelmsford Crown Court for the trial of serial killer Peter Tobin who murdered Essex schoolgirl Dinah McNicol in 1991.
Mr Clegg said he had always wanted to be a barrister, ever since he was a boy growing up with shopkeeper parents in Westcliff on Sea, Essex, watching episodes of American legal drama Perry Mason on television .
But after nearly half a century in the profession, Mr Clegg says he has grave concerns about the problems it faces.
“The budget for the courts service and legal aid has been cut so drastically as to place the profession in crisis,” he said.
“Morale is very low and as a result it has already begun to affect recruitment.
“This is having a particular effect on diversity in the profession, because with fees so low, we are rapidly approaching a point where only people with private income will be able to do publicly funded work.
“That will set us back 30-40 years in terms of what’s happened to diversify the profession.”
Mr Clegg said the other main challenge facing the justice system was that the Government no longer seemed to appreciate the legal profession’s “valuable contribution” to society.
He said that while there were still many people who “desperately wanted” to become a barrister, because it is right for them, anyone who had doubts ought to think “long and hard” about whether it was the correct path to take. “The rewards are just too low,” he said,
Aged 69, Mr Clegg said he had no immediate plans to retire – and may even write another book.
“It took three years to write this one but I wouldn’t rule it out because it proved to be such an enjoyable experience,” he said.
The author said he had been “astonished” by the response to the book, which has received rave reviews and is already scheduled for a reprint, having sold out in many shops. The book is published in hardback by Canbury press costing £16.99.