Rodger Pannone. Mr Nice Guy shows his mettle

No stranger to high-profile litigation, Rodger Pannone's most controversial client has been British nurse and convicted murderer Deborah Parry. Elizabeth Davidson talks to the lawyer the Parry family calls 'Uncle'. ONE phone call sticks in the mind of Jonathan Ashbee, brother-in-law of Deborah Parry, the British nurse jailed for murder in Saudi Arabia

It was at 2am, just before the so-called "blood money" was to be transferred to Frank Gilford, brother of murdered Australian nurse Yvonne Gilford, for whose death Parry and her colleague Lucille McLauchlan stood accused.

Ashbee remembers the call because he says it sums up the "amazing" power of Rodger Pannone, senior partner of Manchester firm Pannone & Partners, to simplify and reassure at a moment when Parry and McLauchlan's lives hung in the balance.

The plan to pay Gilford A$1.1m to exercise his right as brother of the deceased to waive the death penalty had gone wrong. The Lawyer can reveal that Gilford originally insisted on a confidentiality clause in the agreement.

Gilford then gave Parry and McLauchlan eight weeks to raise the money, to be transferred to a trust account.

But a problem arose when Gilford's secret was exposed to the world's media by Saudi Arabian lawyer Salah Al-Hejailan, the "chief" lawyer to Parry and McLauchlan.

When Al-Hejailan told the press about the deal, Gilford threatened to withdraw his waiver offer unless Parry and McLauchlan issued a press release by 7am British time refuting the comments. Hence the frantic early morning phone call to Pannone from Ashbee.

Ashbee recalls how Pannone's words five hours before the deadline exemplify his ability to see through confusion. Pannone asked him: "Do you want a sister in Saudi Arabia without a head or without a lawyer?" As Ashbee saw it, he was forced to tell a lie to protect the nurses. He faxed a press release refuting the Saudi lawyer's comments.

Pannone got involved in the case through Glasgow solicitor Peter Watson who was representing McLauchlan.

The two lawyers and close friends had already worked together on controversial cases such as the Pan-Am Lockerbie air tragedy and the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster.

A leading personal injury lawyer Pannone was suddenly thrust into dealing with a strange legal system and countless officials.

Not only did every twist to the case have diplomatic ramifications, but the media was constantly snapping at his heels. But far from being critical of the Foreign Office and the media, Pannone insists they behaved "impeccably".

Yet Pannone and his team were working on a knife edge.

Parry and McLauchlan's Australian lawyer Michael Burnett, of Minter Ellison in Adelaide, described the tension. "We had to be very cautious with everything we did because we could not have been playing for higher stakes than the lives of the women."

Tensions also rose on the day the money reached Gilford, when Al-Hejailan faxed Burnett at the eleventh hour instructing him not to transfer the money to Gilford, although the nurses' lawyers refuse to spell out why. Al-Hejailan claimed Burnett had authorisation to act on his instructions only. In fact, the relationship between the two was very different. Al-Hejailan was Parry and McLauchlan's lawyer in Saudi Arabia, but both Burnett and Pannone acted for Parry, and in Burnett's case McLauchlan, outside Saudi jurisdiction.

Burnett faxed back to Al-Hejailan informing him that he intended to transfer the money as requested by Parry and McLauchlan. Al-Hejailan then issued a press release, stating he had authorised Burnett to transfer the money to Gilford 15 minutes after the money had actually been released.

Confusion between the lawyers was played out against a delicate international situation over the nurses' arrest. The Lawyer understands the nurses' lawyers were often furious about Al-Hejailan's behaviour but were forced to placate him.

Pannone refuses to be drawn on this but says Al-Hejailan's importance in securing Parry and McLauchlan's release cannot be under-estimated because he was the only lawyer on the team who fully understood the Saudi criminal legal system. Al-Hejailan, alongside US lawyer Michael Dark, a partner at Graham & James, were also the only lawyers in direct contact with the nurses.

Pannone says UK lawyers would find the Saudi justice system highly sophisticated, even though the courts, which operate under Islamic law, allow the accused no right to full legal representation, no right to see or challenge the evidence and no right to call witnesses. Pannone insists: "There are many Islamic courts which have embraced basic human rights and I believe the Saudis are working towards embracing those rights."

But he adds: "In relation to this particular case, however, there is no doubt that the basic human rights which should have existed were not afforded to Deborah Parry and that her conviction is totally and utterly wrong and based solely on her confession, of which several versions exist."

Pannone approves of the two nurses selling their stories to the tabloid press for more than £100,000. He argues that his client and her family deserve some recompense for their trauma.

The Manchester lawyer has supported the Labour Party long before it became fashionable, and cases such as the Lockerbie air disaster and the Chinook helicopter crash in Scotland have marked him out as a crusader. But far from being a preacher, the man who once planned to become a Catholic priest before meeting his wife, comes across as personable and modest. And, despite a glittering career, he has few airs and graces.

However, his nice-guy style did not always suit the rigours of office in Chancery Lane, and insiders say his efforts to shake up and reform the Law Society while president in 1994 were stone-walled by a lack of support among staff and colleagues.

But his manner and personality certainly appear to make the difference to clients. Parry, now recuperating at her Hampshire home, says: "My family would never have got through this without his support and he obviously really loves what he does.

"He is the sort of person that made me feel comfortable immediately and I trust him completely." To Parry and her family he is "Uncle" because he is now "part of the family".

Pannone's tenure as president of the Law Society was followed by a long illness. He talks now of chucking in the law and picking up a fly-fishing rod. But the lure of another challenging case may prove just too tempting.