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'Under the Wig': An Interview with 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.

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I feel instinctively more comfortable representing the underdog.

William Clegg QC

William Clegg QC is the head of chambers at 2 Bedford Row, one of the country's leading set of criminal barristers. In his 47 years in practice, he has acted in more than 100 murder cases and now sits as a part-time judge. His book Under the Wig: A Lawyer’s Stories of Murder, Guilt and Innocence was released on 4 October 2018. It was recently reviewed by Keep Calm Talk Law.

Given his experience, Clegg's thoughts on the law and the criminal justice system are invaluable and in high demand, as his recent interview by The Daily Express and the reporting of quotes from his book in The Times show.

It was therefore with great excitement that Keep Calm Talk Law sat down with Clegg for a short interview to get the benefit of his unique insight into life as a criminal barrister.

Reading your book, one thing that was most notable was how accessible it was – was that something you did intentionally?

Very much so. The whole idea of the book was to try to de-mystify the law, and to try to explain to people who don’t really know anything about the law and very little about the profession, exactly how the profession works. So that was really the object of the exercise. 

Do you think that as a criminal barrister you are particularly well placed to write a book that talks to the public?

I think so. I think that as a criminal barrister you tend to meet a much bigger range of ordinary people than you would in a more esoteric area of the law.

I’m sure there were cases you wanted to include in your book but couldn’t; would you be able to tell our readers any other stories from your career?

A number of stories had to be removed from the book because my clients were confidential and therefore I couldn’t mention them. And of course, I defended David Duckenfield, the senior police officer in charge of Hillsborough, but that whole chapter had to be removed so as not to prejudice the forthcoming trial. I have certainly done a lot of cases that were not included in the book. A selection had to be made.

An unusual case for me was a prosecution brief, of which I have done very few. But I did prosecute Peter Tobin who is a serial killer from Scotland in fact, or at least he certainly did part of his time in Scotland and was convicted in Scotland for murder. It was for the murder of a young girl who came from Essex; the murder had been unsolved for something like 30 years, and the police, relying upon his modus operandi were able to find the body, and to connect the site of the body to where he was living at the time, and as a result managed to get a conviction against him. And he is – if you Google him – sadly, a very notorious serial killer with a number of murder convictions. That’s one that didn’t find its way into the book.

How do you find prosecuting compared to defending? Are they similar? 

I don’t find them similar at all. I’m naturally a defender, I think, by instinct and training; and most of my career I have spent defending, so prosecuting doesn’t come so naturally to me.

What do you think it is about you that makes you naturally a defender?

I think when you’re defending, you feel that you’re representing the underdog, trying to help somebody that the state is trying to prosecute; and I feel more comfortable in that sort of role than somebody acting on behalf of the state, trying to prove an allegation against them. It’s not that I approve of what people do, who are suspected of crime, it is that I feel instinctively more comfortable representing the underdog.

Many of our readers are law students. We are very aware of the cuts to legal aid – especially when making career decisions – which you dealt with in your book. What would you say to encourage law students to apply to the criminal bar?

I think you should only come to the criminal bar if you are really committed, and it is the job that you want to do above all others. If you really want to become a criminal barrister then it would be terrible to go through life thinking ‘I really wanted to do that but I never gave it a chance.’

And do you have any general advice for young barristers about how to succeed at the Bar?

I don’t think anything has changed since I started. I think you succeed by hard work, good preparation of your cases and working long hours, in the evening and at weekends. There is no substitute for case preparation.

In your time at the Bar, have you seen a noticeable difference in terms of diversity, or do you think there is still a long way for the Bar to go?

I have seen an enormous change in diversity in my time at the Bar. When I started in my very first Chambers as a pupil there were no women tenants at all. Now, the last time that barristers were made silk, more women were made silk than men. There has been a huge increase in diversity, both on the grounds of sex and race and also class – by class I mean what perceived class you came from in society. When I started a huge number of barristers, most of them probably came from public schools; I was quite a rarity coming from a secondary bond school, but now you see more and more people coming from state schools which is, undoubtedly, a good thing.

Legal aid is setting that diversity back. Both in terms of the type of people who are coming, and also it affects very much the diversity so far as race goes. It’s getting almost to the stage that if you just do legally aided criminal work you have to have either a private income or family money. 

Have you already noticed this change?

I think it’s already happening and we can see that in the reduction of applications for pupillage in my Chambers.

What role do developments in forensic technology have on the administration of justice?

I definitely think that developments, particularly in DNA and other forensics, allow there to be justice done in cases where there has been no justice in the past. I have no difficulty in seeing people, for example, who have committed rape being convicted 20 or 30 years after the events, as long as the evidence is compelling. 

Do you think the #MeToo movement has had, or will have, an impact on sexual violence cases? And if so, how?

I don’t think it will, funnily enough. Despite all the publicity, I think that juries look at those cases – as they do with all serious cases really – on the evidence of the individual trial that they are doing and come to a decision on it. I presume that if there is going to be a change at all it will mean that there will be less suspicion about an ancient allegation brought up than there might have been historically.

If we look over to the US we can see increased politicisation of their judicial offices. And Lord Sumption was in the news this week because he says – and will argue in the Reith lectures on the BBC – that too many political decisions are being left for judges in the UK. He attributes this to the Human Rights Act 1998. Do you agree?

I’m not sure I do. The position is very different in this country from the United States; the appointment of judges is not something that is done by the government here but by an independent body. Therefore, you don’t get the sort of investigation that is currently going on in the United States in relation to the Supreme Court appointment. And I think our system for appointing judges is a great deal better and we keep a distinct separation between the judiciary and Parliament. I think it is inevitable that some political decisions fall to be decided by the courts because ultimately political decisions involve, frequently, the interpretation of an Act of Parliament and that can only be done by the courts. So, the famous Brexit case when the judges were lambasted as being ‘enemies of the people’ was a case which could only be decided by the judges; and it was a scandal that they were attacked in the way that they were by the press afterwards.

We recently had an article that discussed privatisation in the criminal justice system; do you have an opinion on private prisons?

I’ve got nothing against private prisons in principle as long as they deliver a humane and secure service for the prisoner. I think one of the problems has been that the government is constantly trying to save money in the prison service and therefore is giving contracts for management to the lowest bidder; the net result being that the prisons are not safe, secure accommodation for prisoners. Nor are they getting the sort of re-training that they need to avoid crime when they come out after serving their sentence.

What is your favourite book?

My favourite book, which I read every now and then, is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.

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

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Justice, Legal Aid, Legal Education, Prisons, Supreme Court, The Judiciary

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