Master of defence

No-nonsense and a formidable advocate, William Clegg QC is building up one of the most impressive CVs at the criminal bar. By Brendan Malkin

The receptionist at 2 Bedford Row cannot disguise a grin at the prospect of my interviewing William Clegg QC. Like so many staff at barristers’ chambers, she has enormous respect for her barristers, and not least Clegg, the man who jointly founded the chambers in 1983 and who has headed it ever since.

Clegg is the son of two florists and perhaps having come from a working-class background has given him a heightened sense of injustice. He has always defended rather than prosecuted and his strength is his ability to overwhelm juries with short but concise evidence. For this reason he is extremely impressed with the way the Hutton inquiry is being conducted. Clegg can talk expertly on this subject as he has been involved in several large public inquiries, the Ashworth mental hospital inquiry being the best known, in which he represented a pathologist. He also has considerable knowledge of Continental European trials, in which counsel cross-examine and sum up within strict time limits.

This style of advocacy is anathema to many English barristers, who claim to thrive on stunning juries into submission. In contrast, says Clegg, the Hutton inquiry is kept under a “tight rein” by keeping cross-examinations limited to specific points and conducted by counsel for the inquiry.

Clegg is tight-lipped on his views on Lord Justice Hutton. He advocated before him earlier this year in an appeal case – Clegg’s forte – for a West Indian facing death row. But his opinions of Lord Hutton run deeper. Lord Hutton made his mark in Northern Ireland cases and, by all accounts, had a tough time of it with threats to his life.

To this day, Lord Hutton is subject to tight security, a fact that moves Clegg, who spent some time himself in Northern Ireland and can possibly relate to the horrors this poses. In Northern Ireland, Clegg successfully represented Corporal Lee Clegg on his second appeal against his murder conviction rooted in new factual evidence. This reversed Lord Hutton’s earlier decision to convict him. He does not comment on Lord Hutton’s decision in the case, but prefers to point out the fact that Northern Irish criminal courts do not have juries because of the risk of intimidation they would face. “Having a professional lawyer – the judge – as the decider of fact is not a happy advert for criminal trials,” says Clegg.

Alongside a small painting of an Inn on the wall of Clegg’s room at 2 Bedford Row, and photographs of people outside various courtrooms in this country, sits a remarkable photo of some of the jurors who travelled to Belorussia for the trial of Anthony Sawoniuk, accused of killing Jews in Belorussia in 1942. Clegg had no qualms about representing Sawoniuk. In fact, he regards it as deeply unfair that English law allows for Russian mass murderers to be sentenced for crimes they committed more than 50 years ago, while British soldiers are protected.

He raises the same criticism in relation to The Hague’s tribunal for Serbian war criminals: why should there not be a mechanism for wayward UN soldiers to be tried?

Furthermore, Clegg believes the War Crimes Act 1991 – which has only led to one conviction, Sawoniuk – was brought into English law far too late to enable a proper investigation to take place to prove that, for instance, a Russian foot soldier was the controlling force behind the mass murder of innocent Jews. Despite highlighting the flaws in the prosecution of Sawoniuk and that of Szymon Serafinowicz – who Clegg represented and who was also accused of the murder of Jews in Belarussia (his trial collapsed after he was deemed mentally unfit) – Clegg regards his work in these actions as the most fascinating he has ever done. “I was dealing with original KGB files stemming from the 1940s which no one had seen before. I was dealing with living history,” he says.

His work in these trials led him to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where he represented at appeal Dusko Tadic, ‘the Butcher of Omarska’, the detention camp that claimed the lives of large numbers of Bosnian Muslims. Clegg remarks that the Tadic case had difficulties of its own kind. “There was difficulty in getting evidence, not because of the passage of time, but because defence lawyers could not get access to the witnesses,” he says. Clegg appears to be something of a perfectionist and those who know him at the bar say he will not put something down until it is 100 per cent completed. Clegg says about himself: “The most important thing is to have complete mastery of the brief. You also need confidence when you speak in court and you cannot have this without having mastered the documents.”

He also acted for Drago Josipovic, a co-perpetrator with Vladimir Santic, a battalion commander who committed crimes against humanity, and Goran Jelisic, a Bosnian Serb who confessed to the murder and torture of 12 Muslims and Croats but was cleared of genocide because his crimes did not amount to an attempt to destroy an ethnic or religious group. Josipovic was convicted, but had his sentence considerably reduced following Clegg’s appeal.

On the day I meet Clegg, his former client the Soham police officer Brian Stevens, appeared in court charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Clegg shows no glint of emotion when he describes acting for Stevens on previous charges, all dismissed, relating to child sex allegations and computer pornography charges. “It was obvious the prosecution case was flawed because of their expert evidence,” he states. The prosecution threw in the towel and offered no new evidence after it acknowledged fundamental flaws in its technical computer evidence. It is likely that Clegg will be instructed on the current charges facing Stevens. Perhaps Clegg has a natural distrust of the efficiency of our investigation system. He makes it clear that he is not really surprised about the evidence debacle in Stevens’ case. “There are lots of cases where the evidence is flawed,” he says.

So where does his future lie? He and his set’s senior clerk John Grimmer are seasoned at promoting the chambers. The set has grown from 22 in 1983 to its current 15 silks and 42 juniors and is rated as England’s finest serious crime chambers. Clegg, that master of criminal defence, now spends a lot of his time advising City clients on matters such as corporate manslaughter, health and safety, trading standards, and money laundering.

But Clegg, it seems, will never be too far from the action, although professional life for him haschanged. “Individuals come to me for advice these days,” he says.
William Clegg QC
2 Bedford Row