Royal command

Fiona Shackleton, the grande dame of family law, was slammed after Burrellgate. Was she a victim of palace machinations or should she have stood her ground? Jon Robins reports

Following months of allegations, claims, counter-claims, behind-the-scenes briefings and finally Sir Michael Peat's report into the aftermath of the Paul Burrell trial and the shenanigans at St James's Palace, the media has delivered its judgement on Fiona Shackleton. From the most ardent royalist palace-watcher to the irreverent tabloid hack, all now cast the solicitor as the scapegoat of the long-running saga.

“It is a mystery why Ms Shackleton – the only person in the story to suggest the rape allegation be investigated – is dumped on,” pondered a leader column in The Guardian last month.

No doubt the belated support of the press is of little comfort to Shackleton, the 46-year old partner at Payne Hicks Beach who steered Prince Charles through his £17m divorce and has now been unceremoniously demoted from being personal solicitor to the heir to the throne and his sons to being just one of many legal advisers. According to reports, she has even been crossed off the royal Christmas card list.

The close-knit family law bar drew ranks in the wake of Burrellgate, with its allegations of homosexual rape and unseemly sales of expensive gifts. It was reported that the beleaguered lawyer had been deluged with calls of support and flowers and even rivals such as Withers' Diana Parker and Frances Hughes were so incensed at her treatment in the media they were going to put pen to paper in her defence. But the press, and the palace, was in an unforgiving mood.

“It's been like a bereavement,” Shackleton was reported to have said at a recent dinner. “At least I still have both my legs,” she quipped, referring to the reported wish of Mark Bolland, adviser to the Prince, to 'have her legs off'.

It is easy to see the “glacial Mrs Shackleton”, as one of the broadsheets had it, as the consummate professional caught between the machinations of St James's Palace and a press baying for blood. And yet there is a nagging doubt, which is increasingly insistent following the publication of the Peat Report, about her role at the palace. “In a large measure, Fiona is the author of her own misfortune because she took on a task that she wasn't equipped to deal with,” says one leading family lawyer.

In the conservative world of the law, even at the racier 'celeb divorce' lawyer end of the market, Shackleton's glitzy Dallas-style glamour – always immaculately turned out, remarkably coiffed blonde hair and big, big jewellery – has always turned heads. “Shackleton is a youthful 43, with soft blond hair, big green eyes, comely features, and a penchant for bright colours. In short, she's gorgeous,” raved one breathless legal mag a few years ago. Anthony Julius never received press like that when he landed the job as Lady Di's lawyer.

But to suggest that Shackleton, or the 'Steel Magnolia' as she is sometimes known, is a universal hit with her peers is by no means the whole picture. “She has made a lot of enemies because she tends to be rather inappropriately grand on occasions,” notes one lawyer. “She's a great name-dropper and it's usually some minor royal.” Another recalls one appearance before her recent travails when she was with her colleagues and looking like “a pink Christmas tree” topped off with a tiara.

Richard Sax, a partner at Manches solicitors and co-founder and former Chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association, knows her well and is having none of it. “They have a word for it – Schadenfreude,” he says. “There is a temptation to rejoice at another's misfortune, but I certainly don't in Fiona's case. She's a class act.” His own take on the Burrell saga is that her advice was both clear and definitive.

Indeed, many of the other leading lights of family law are equally as enthusiastic about Shackleton, both the lawyer and person. “Fiona has acquitted herself well in relation to Michael Peat's report,” reckons Frances Hughes, head of Hughes Fowler Carruthers. “I have no doubt that she will retain her client base. Her clients need to rely upon strict confidentiality and discretion and very often need to keep well away from media interest. I have no doubt that she will continue to survive the flak.”

According to Parker, she is “one hundred per cent reliable and hugely energising – a real star”. And Jane Simpson, chairman of Manches, says: “She was put in a difficult position and it must have been an incredibly difficult experience for her and so she has my admiration.” As for her 'grand' manner, one of her supporters says: “Well, she was Prince Charles' lawyer, you know? Perhaps she has earned the right to be a bit grand.”

Shackleton was the debutante daughter of Jonathan Charkham, an industry adviser to the Bank of England and a Sheriff of the City of London. She wanted to be a doctor, but was told by her school, Benenden, that “she did not have the brains” and went on to study law at Exeter University where she was awarded a third.

Shackleton became a trainee at Herbert Smith, before taking a brief career detour to work as a freelance chef cooking haute cuisine for directors' dining rooms. While entertaining the managing directors of Colman's Mustard in 1981, one of the directors mentioned that he was looking for a lawyer for a corporate takeover. Apparently, Shackleton was on hand to reel off the relevant provisions of the Companies Act, thus reawakening her own interest in the law.

She joined Brecher & Co as a matrimonial lawyer because, she once said, it was “easy to understand”, and made partner within six months at 25 years old. In 1984 she joined Farrer & Co, lawyers to royalty for some 200 years. It was there that she established a name for herself acting for Maya Flick – the estranged wife of the Mercedes-Benz heir who, she argued, could not live on a £20m settlement – Prince Andrew, and a coterie of high net worth individuals. In 1996, she was instructed to advise Prince Charles in the divorce of the century, while Julius, of Mishcon de Reya, fought Lady Di's corner. At the time, the Daily Mirror compared the attributes of the two legal rivals as “Superwoman v Reservoir Dog” – Julius was then lecturing on Quentin Tarantino films. The paper's view on Shackleton was: “Superwoman with a spotless reputation, known for razor-sharp mind and hard-nosed negotiations.”

She won the key concession that the late Princess of Wales would drop her HRH title, but she also persuaded the princess to drop a demand that Prince Charles should sign an order preventing him from talking about the marriage. Even the princess herself sent Shackleton a bouquet of flowers within hours of the settlement, according to a friend, for “being so civilised”.

There then followed her own controversial separation from Farrers, breaking a historic link between the Palace and the establishment firm, to join Payne Hicks Beach. According to all reports, there was little love lost between the two sides. “There's been a lot of jealousy,” one friend told the press at the time. “I suspect also she's a bit larger-than-life for some of them.”

So what is the charge of Shackleton's critics? One paper claimed that the problem with lawyers who deal with royalty, is that they become afflicted with “red carpetitis”. One of her peers says: “She's experienced and has done some really weighty cases, but she simply wasn't the right person to carry out that sort of inquiry and she shouldn't have touched it with a barge pole.”

The Peat report devotes 16 paragraphs to Shackleton and it seems that the Prince of Wales left her in an intolerable position. She regarded the allegation of the rape of the royal valet George Smith as “very serious” and observed there was “no smoke without fire”. But the report also expresses surprise that within three days she abandoned advice to the prince that the allegation should be investigated. It also believes that by meeting Smith alone with no independent third party, Shackleton left herself open to the suggestion that pressure had been brought to bear upon Smith. When the Burrell trial reopened the allegations, the solicitor told police officers: “I was asked to make it go away.” Although she insisted that her remarks must not go down on the record, she said: “I'm saying that I had written instructions from the boss to make the whole business go away, which I did, but it was one of the lowest points in my professional career.”

The Peat report concludes that her initial advice to investigate was “entirely reasonable and proper” and that other members of St James's Palace – presumably Prince Charles – “should not have treated her claims so dismissively”. One Scotland Yard officer, Commander John Yates, praised the solicitor for having conducted herself “with honour and dignity”.

Family law practitioners understand better than most how emotionally raw relations with their clients can become and they also know from experience about taking the rap when everything goes wrong. “The higher the profile the more vulnerable one becomes and it must be the case that sometimes people fall prey to unfair allegations and things do get blown out of proportion,” says Rosemary Carter, former SFLA chair and partner at Hamlins. “That's always the risk of doing these cases,” she adds. “The higher one is, the further one has to fall.”

And that is just part of the job description. As Sax says: “Family law clients can turn on you at any time in a way that is not justified and unless you're able to cope with that situation, there is no point in being a family lawyer.”