Works like a charm

Doyen of the criminal bar Robert Rhodes QC has had a miserable year, but he still manages to charm the socks off Brendan Malkin

There is something charming about Robert Rhodes QC. The respected serious crime silk has repeatedly made the news recently: he successfully defended himself against allegations of misconduct brought by the Bar Council; survived the break-up of his chambers, 4 King’s Bench Walk; and won the day for the defendants in two key Serious Fraud Office (SFO) prosecutions.

But back to the charm. There is the type that gets salesmen six-figure salaries and wins you friends – and there is the type that wins over juries. Most criminal barristers have their own style of advocating. Judging by Rhodes’ persona and his own descriptions of himself in court, his is a combination of a seemingly effortless courtesy and a gentle relaying of information. He sounds more like a counsellor or a sympathetic friend while he keeps his audience entertained with narratives and anecdotes.

It is said that he maintained this style for four-and-a-half hours a day for seven days during the Barlow Clowes case – at the time the largest British fraud case in history. Spending such a sustained period on your feet is rare and requires a cool nerve. During our meeting at his new chambers, 35 Essex Street, Rhodes recalls an occasion when a female client was ranting at him. The more she raised her voice, the more Rhodes reduced the volume of his, until eventually he was barely audible. In the end, he says, she fell silent.

Rhodes likes civilised pastimes: regaling historical anecdotes, playing ‘real’ tennis (which has its origins in the Middle Ages), knowing what is sung in every line at each opera he sees, and heady evenings at the Garrick gentleman’s club. Such pursuits are likely to smooth over any rough edges.

Rhodes’ ability to escape helped him deal with the misery the Bar Council caused him for two-and-a-half years during its investigation into his conduct as head of 4KBW. The Bar Council’s allegations were totally dismissed but the experience, says Rhodes with characteristic poetic flair, led him “through the valley of the shadow of death”.

The ordeal started in December 2000 when the Bar Council inspected 4KBW’s records following allegations that the set was paying commissions to Claims Direct in exchange for work. Four months later, following the disclosure of hundreds of records by the set to the Bar Council, Rhodes received a complaint from the council for allegedly allowing the payments for work to be made. The Bar Council did not answer Rhodes’ responses to these complaints.

However, in December 2001, he was formally charged with failing to take reasonable steps to ensure his set was properly administered, and of failing to prevent the issue of misleading fee notes from 4KBW. In April 2003, all the allegations against Rhodes were dismissed by a Bar Council tribunal.

During the course of the investigation, neither Rhodes nor his senior consultant clerk Ian Lee (who was at the centre of the allegations relating to the commission payments to Claims Direct, which were also eventually dismissed) were interviewed by Bar Council investigators. Investigators also
failed to produce a single witness during the tribunal that finally exonerated Rhodes.

This blight over Rhodes’ life took place at a time when he was running a set of chambers – a job which he did not want “because it is utterly thankless” – and defending Leslie Rosenthal, a former buying director of the DIY company Wickes. Rosenthal was wrongly accused by the SFO of misleading his company’s auditors.

Rhodes does not want to comment on any of these events apart from that the Claims Direct scheme (which it has been found did not involve secret commission payments to the company) had been set up by his predecessor as head of chambers, now His Honour Judge Heppel, and before Rhodes was a member of 4KBW. The Bar Council never suggested that Heppel himself had acted improperly. Rhodes adds: “I was not given the opportunity to comment on any of the charges before the proceedings were commenced, and I was awarded an order for costs against the Bar Council.”

It must have been an ordeal, especially as a guilty finding against Rhodes would have seriously damaged his career. Perhaps the experience has made him now wish to appear whiter than white. Ironically, he is dressed in a white suit for our meeting and now and again his looks remind me of Martin Bell, the journalist-MP whose white suit became synonymous with moral purity.

Rhodes’ father, a chartered accountant, is his greatest influence. He says he taught him the importance of “kindness and love and the virtue of hard work”. His other influence has been Michael Sherrard QC, head of the former 2 Crown Office Row, whom he describes as “combining enormous ability and hard work with charm and modesty” (Rhodes joined Sherrard’s set after 13 years at One Hare Court).

Sherrard also helped Rhodes climb up the greasy pole by choosing him to be his junior in a raft of cases that took Rhodes to, among other courts, the Privy Council and the House of Lords. Rhodes says he retained his master’s favour by constantly finishing work quicker than expected.

This early break started him on a successful career at the criminal bar. His first big case was in 1981 with the Attorney General prosecuting the directors of the Israel-British Bank in 1981. This was followed by a major espionage case involving Cuban spies, where he successfully defended Guy von Cramer in the Barlow Clowes case. He has hardly slowed down since. He became the first English silk to be instructed in a capital drugs appeal in Singapore.

More recently he has been a thorn in the SFO’s side, successfully appearing for a defendant in the Wickes trial, one of the biggest fraud cases of 2002. Several weeks ago he forced the SFO to withdraw money laundering charges against a woman who had been extradited and held in custody for a year.

He had little time for his hobbies while he managed a chambers which was facing investigation and which, it is said by a former member, was losing work because of the negative publicity. Between handling interlocutors, he was mastering some 30,000 documents, ensuring there were no conflicts which would potentially cause one witness to have reason to attack another, creating arguments, and simplifying mounds of evidence to make it understandable for the jury.

His sense of humour – which no doubt matured nicely during the clubbable lifestyle of being an international fencer during his youth (he found time to represent Britain several times in international under-20 championships in the mid-1960s) – assists him socially and is presumably a coping mechanism common to many barristers living under stress. He loves his visits to the Garrick club, having become a member only after the obligatory eight years on the waiting list.

During the Wickes trial he experienced what is known in the business as ‘Maxwell hours’. This comprised presenting evidence to the jury from 9.30am to 1.30pm and then from 2pm to close of play in legal argument. Rhodes left the afternoon work to his junior, Nigel Hood, unless it directly affected his client. He then got on with preparation for the next day in court.

At 8pm every Wednesday, Rhodes religiously took himself off to the Garrick where he would spend two pleasant hours talking to intellectual strangers on whatever subject. “You can tell the time of death of the old boys at the Garrick from the date of the newspapers on their heads,” he muses.

He loves his jokes but retains his soft centre. There is an aura about him of the established actor having a break, rather than the battle-hardened criminal barrister. He studied classical Chinese at university – “I realised there was one-third of the world’s population about whom I knew nothing,” he explains – and encouraged his son to study a subject as an undergraduate which represents education for education’s sake. His son took his father’s advice and studied archaeology and anthropology. After a spell at Ashurst Morris Crisp, his son now runs, the gossip website for lawyers.

Rhodes is an affable sort. I once interviewed Lord Brennan when he was the chairman of the Bar Council, who advised me that a good bed, a good tailor and a good hand-made pair of shoes are vital in life. I was reminded of this when, on mentioning to Rhodes that I had been unwell after a holiday, he recommended I took a particular immune-bolstering medicine before and after a vacation. Rhodes means well. It seems he is a man who wants to be liked not just by juries, but even journalists.
Robert Rhodes QC
35 Essex Street