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Book Review: 'Under the Wig' by William Clegg QC

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About The Author

Bláthnaid Breslin (Joint Editor-in-Chief)

Bláthnaid recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a first class degree. She is currently undertaking the BPTC in London, funded by a Lord Denning scholarship, and will begin the BCL at Oxford in September. She has a particular interest in land law and social housing. Outside the law, Bláthnaid is a talented tennis player who played for the University of Nottingham Ladies’ II Team.

As to morality, it’s not for me to judge whether someone is guilty or innocent: that’s why we have a trial... any effective system of criminal justice must have a mechanism for people accused of a crime to be defended. If people aren’t defended, we won’t have justice.

William Clegg QC

William Clegg QC’s Under the Wig: A Lawyer’s Stories of Murder, Guilt and Innocence is the most recent in a series of popular books about the law, which cater to the general public and not just a narrow legal audience. It follows the success of The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken and Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence. Inevitably it will provoke comparisons: The Secret Barrister’s book in particular has been hailed as providing an accessible account of the law for the layman (it was previously reviewed by Connor Griffith for Keep Calm Talk Law)

Under the Wig has a similar aim, but it goes about it by a totally different means: it brings readers ‘under the wig’ (literally and metaphorically) of one of the UK’s most successful criminal defence barristers. There can be little doubt that this book will be a success: the clarity and accessibility of Clegg's writing means it will be well-received by lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

The Book

There are few barristers who have achieved the acclaim of William Clegg QC: having practiced for 47 years, he has been involved in over 100 murder cases - more than anyone else practising at the English Bar. He has defended some of the most famous criminal cases in recent history – including the Wimbledon Common Murder, the Chillenden Murders and the Rebekah Brooks phone hacking trial – and is the head of one of the country's top criminal chambers (2 Bedford Row).

In this respect, Clegg is, or should be, the archetype of an inaccessible lawyer. Yet the greatest strength of Under the Wig is its simplicity and accessibility: it caters to a wide spectrum of readers – from those with knowledge and experience of the law to those with none.

This is a difficult task, and there are times when the book will seem almost too simple and obvious to readers who are well-versed in the law and the legal sector. For example:

They may, however, tell me that they did the killing, but in circumstances that would generate a partial or complete defence. For instance, they may say they were acting in self-defence — which is a complete defence to murder and will absolve guilt for a killing.

Or they may rely on one of several defences unique to murder, which will reduce the offence to manslaughter, making the sentence at the discretion of the judge. So my client may admit they did the act, but claim that they were provoked, which is a partial defence. Or they may say there were suffering from an abnormality of the mind such that they had diminished responsibility, which also reduces the offence to manslaughter.

But this can and should be forgiven: the book fulfils an important function, which is to make the law accessible to everyone. 

In the final chapter of the book Clegg discusses barristers’ wigs, which are traditionally worn to make the barrister anonymous. However, Clegg believes they are ‘ridiculous’. I tend to agree with him: a kind of anonymity comes with Clegg’s status – his senior position means he is far removed from the public. This anonymity is overcome by the book. Clegg's frank and clear style of writing, which includes flashes of humour and dry wit, allows him to forge a very real connection with his readers, no matter their background. That connection is necessary to ensure public trust and confidence in the legal system.

Key Chapters

Notable Cases from Clegg's Career

Under the Wig alternates between accounts of Clegg’s most famous cases and personal anecdotes from his life and his career. 

All of the cases included in Under the Wig are worth reading, but a notable example with which many law students will be familiar is his successful representation of Private Lee Clegg (no relation) in the famous case of R v Clegg [1995], which examined the law of self-defence.

Perhaps the best demonstration of why Clegg is at the top of his profession is the case of Barry George. In July 2001, George was convicted of the murder of Jill Dando – a TV personality – on the basis of firearm residue found in his pocket. Clegg succeeded in convincing the Court of Appeal that the presence of this particle did not make it any more likely that Mr George was responsible:

Several witnesses, including the firearms expert who had given evidence for the prosecution at the Old Bailey, testified that the discovery of that one particle of residue in Barry’s coat pocket was evidentially insignificant.

They told the court that its presence did not make it more likely that he was the killer, or that he had been in contact with the gun used to kill her a year earlier, than if the particle had never been discovered in the first place, making it a completely neutral piece of evidence.

Indeed during my cross-examination, the prosecution expert went so far as to concede that his evidence had been misrepresented at the Old Bailey.

Legal Aid Cuts

In one of the final chapters in Under the Wig, Clegg discusses the issue of legal aid cuts. This topic was also examined by The Secret Barrister in vivid detail. His/her picture of the current system was one of chaos and, at times, despair. What Clegg offers is a more subdued, but quietly powerful, account of the current state of criminal justice. While junior barristers suffer from the current salaries offered by legal aid work, senior barristers can refuse to do legal aid cases as – unlike the position before recent cuts – the current rate of pay is not considered to be a reasonable income. This makes commercial sense.

However, the reader is confronted with the stark realisation that many legal aid clients will be deprived of the services of a barrister with the expertise and skill of Clegg. A number of cases described in the book involve individuals who were wrongly accused, and whose innocence might not have been proved without Clegg’s advocacy. These near brushes with injustice leave the reader with the same questions as Clegg:

If Barry George were re-tried now, would justice be done? Would he have been able to prove the gunshot residue was irrelevant? Would he have been found not guilty?


Under the Wig is a book worth reading: if you are a lawyer or a law student, it provides fascinating tales of complex criminal trials; if you have no experience of the law, it provides a clear and accessible introduction to both criminal law and the life of a barrister; if you have never enjoyed the law, you are likely to do so by the end of it.

William Clegg QC's new book Under the Wig: A Lawyer’s Stories of Murder, Guilt and Innocence, published by Canbury Press, is available from 4 October 2018.

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Tagged: Courts, Criminal Law, Justice, Review

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