Back to the law

Sir Nicholas Lyell QC has had a long and prestigious political and legal career. Matheu Swallow meets the seriously straight-talking former Attorney-General upon his return to the bar.

It seems only proper to introduce the Right Honourable Sir Nicholas Lyell QC with his full and formal title.

After all, the former Attorney-General is a man who takes his work and his life very seriously.

Lyell's one-time pupil Stephen Ruttle QC says: "He has a strong sense of duty. He does not look on life as a great joke. There is a formality about him and a strong sense of responsibility."

Lyell is driven by his work and enthuses over the legal and political wrangles he has been involved in. These include some of the best-known cases in recent legal history and some of the most famous political debates – Factortame, Pepper v Hart, the Maastricht Treaty, the Matrix-Churchill affair.

And now, after five years as Attorney-General between 1992 and 1997 and a further two years as the shadow Attorney-General, Lyell is keen to embark on rebuilding his practice at the bar.

He says: "I need something to get my teeth into otherwise it eats away at me. I need it. I live on it."

Lyell says that his toughest period was during the Matrix-Churchill affair.

"There was a vast amount of mis-information put out during those three-and-a-half years and we could not reply to it."

The experience has left him with a mistrust of lengthy and public inquiries, which he describes as "gravy trains for the bar", preferring instead such matters to be debated openly and transparently through regular House of Commons process.

Even his friends were not sure if he would survive in his post long enough to see the publication of Lord Justice Scott's report.

But Lyell did survive the experience and has been able to pursue his dual career in politics and law ever since.

He was quoted at the time as saying: "I am a rare creature and stupid enough to like this job. I love the law and the duty of a law officer is to be absolutely scrupulous about the law and approach legal subjects with legal integrity."

Lyell's view is unsurprising, given that his family is steeped in a great legal tradition. His father was a barrister and a High Court judge, and his family's connection with the law began sometime in the 18th Century when it became embroiled in a long-running land dispute. The family quickly tired of paying excessive lawyer's fees and so decided take up law.

Lyell originally looked set to break with family tradition, harbouring serious designs on becoming an architect.

His mother was a sculptor and his grandfather was the painter Lowes Dalbiac Luard, who instilled the creative instinct in him at a young age.

However, his mother died when he was 11 and his father, who Lyell describes as a "very scholarly man", took over his upbringing, permanently altering Lyell's career path.

Lyell explains: "The artistic side ceased to have that immense stimulus and the analytical and legal side came forward with my father. We had endless discussions and we always loved arguing. That is what took me into the law.

But Lyell's creative flair has been maintained as a sideline. He has achieved a certain notoriety with his caricatures of the Cabinet in session and of leading political figures.

He is currently on a painting holiday in India with his wife Susanna, herself a professional artist.

This creative flair is kept to a minimum in his professional life. As Attorney-General he was described as "quiet and low key" while as an advocate he says he has no time for "flummery".

Lyell says: "One of the defects in the law of our generation, partly as a result of the word processor, partly the result of skeleton arguments becoming far too fleshy – far, far too long – is that people fail to concentrate and distil. If you want to draft a good case for the House of Lords or Privy Council you have to make it short."

His advocacy style – as well as a little painting and decorating – was learned from Gordon Slynn (now Lord Slynn), who was his pupil master at Brick Court, which Lyell joined after graduating in history from Stowe College, Oxford.

"If we were working late he would quite often invite me to supper. He would be working and I would paint the kitchen with Odine [Slynn's wife]," Lyell says.

At this point in our conversation Lyell demonstrates his courtroom presence by rising swiftly and standing to attention.

He is straight into character, maintaining a military posture which indicates a younger and fitter frame than his 62 years would suggest, and he is excited by the thought of stepping back into the arena of the courtroom.

On the matter of relaxing court dress, he says: "There is quite a lot to be said for changing clothes. When you come out of a tough argument, rather like playing a game of squash, you sweat.

"You may look cool as a cucumber but the tension is absolutely colossal. You live on adrenaline. I can only get a case up when the adrenaline starts to run."

And while he gushes over the elegance and pomp of the Cube Room in Downing Street where Privy Council cases are heard, he is very much in favour of rational modernisation, notably of the Bar Council.

"I am always staggered by the sheer number of committees the bar loves to proliferate. I think it is very healthy to take a deep breath and look at the structure of the bar every 10 years," he says.

From 1965, when Lyell was called to the bar, he spent 20 years building up a successful commercial practice. He says he counted over 200 solicitors as his clients, including the likes of Linklaters, Allen & Overy, Stephenson Harwood and Theodore Goddard.

Despite Lyell's formal portrayal of his life, he does throw in the odd anecdote that suggests a deeply mischievous nature hiding not far from the surface.

One example is "the doctor and matron case", which he describes as "one of the most dramatic victories" of his young days.

In true Carry On style the case involved a naive young doctor, represented by Lyell, who had a "very strong sex instinct". The doctor entered into a passionate affair with a matron. When this cooled the matron accused him, before the General Medical Council, of abusing his professional relationship to build a sexual one.

Lyell takes great pleasure in describing one of the more peculiar allegations that was made against his client.

"One of the most striking allegations was that one of his ways of ingratiating himself was to give her iron injections. These were given in the buttock and as large quantities of fluid had to be injected you had to change direction and I think the GMC thought this was hardly the way to ingratiate yourself," he recalls.

However, he prefers to discuss matters of a serious political nature, emphasising at length the reasons why the Labour Government has mishandled the Pinochet affair.

He says: "One should not be carrying on a political battle in another country by judicial means. If relations of someone allegedly murdered by Martin McGuiness or Gerry Adams were to seek to extradite them in 15 years to another country, would that be proper when we have reached a settlement on this matter?"

Lyell was elected MP for Hemel Hempstead in 1979 but continued in practice until he became junior minister for the Department of Social Security in 1986.

This ministerial post is steeped in political tradition, with a roll call that includes Margaret Thatcher (who Lyell describes as having "giblet eyes"), John Major, William Hague and Michael Portillo.

Since the early 1970s Lyell had harboured a desire to become the Government's senior law officer. But despite his slight hesitation when asked he says he does not want to be the next Prime Minister.

Giving up his salary as a practising barrister to become a minister meant taking a substantial drop in income.

"It was still worth several times more than my salary as an MP, right up to becoming a junior minister. Judges talk about taking a drop in salary when they become judges, but they should try politics."

Then came the news that Lyell suffered losses in the Lloyd's debacle, and when the press got wind of the fact that Lyell was offering painting and wine tasting holidays from his house in Burgundy it went to town, proclaiming Lyell was moonlighting by giving lectures on wine to salvage his parlous financial situation.

Lyell takes great delight in telling me that when The Times and The Telegraph got hold of colour pictures of the house, which appeared on their front pages the following day, the painting holidays sold out immediately.

He will now split his time between rebuilding a practice from his new home at Monckton Chambers and life as a Tory backbencher.

Lyell is soon to face Michael Beloff QC in a major constitutional case in the Bahamas.

No doubt he will be like the fox in one of his published after dinner stories – the one where a bird falls into a cowpat and starts to slowly drown, only to have the fox rescue it, carefully clean it… then eat it.