The Krays, Dennis Nilsen – and Chris Grayling: a conversation with Sir Ivan Lawrence QC

Famed criminal barrister and former MP Sir Ivan Lawrence on why he went up against the Justice Secretary and the duties of a defence lawyer

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

I’m standing with Sir Ivan Lawrence QC in a narrow room at his Pump Court chambers, examining an oil painting sent to him from Broadmoor by his former client the late Ronnie Kray. It is a naive depiction of a house in a field which could, at first glance, be the work of a worryingly forceful five-year-old. Yet what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in emphasis: the signature ‘R Kray’ is daubed in thumping capitals.

Sir Ivan defended Kray in his 1969 murder trial over the killing of George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel. Cornell, a member of the rival Richardson gang, had reportedly called Ronnie ‘a fat poofter’. Although Ronnie was duly convicted and sentenced to life, he retained respect for his counsel. ‘They had a sort of a sense of humour,’ says Sir Ivan of the Krays. ‘I was standing for election in Peckham at the time, and Ronnie said’ — he slips skilfully into an adenoidal East End intonation — ‘“Thank you for what you’ve done for me, sir. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you in Peckham so you can become Home Secretary and let us out early.” ’ Like Sir Ivan, however, Ronnie supported capital punishment.

The young barrister — a working-class, Jewish grammar-school boy from Brighton — was later elected Conservative MP for Burton in 1974 and held the seat for 23 years. Although never Home Secretary, he rose to become chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and an influential figure on the Eurosceptic wing of the party, instigating the National Lottery with a private member’s bill. It must have been a shock to the present Conservative leadership, therefore, to witness the 77-year-old Sir Ivan in full rhetorical flight last March, supporting an unprecedented walkout by criminal barristers. To cheers, the lifelong Tory declared: ‘I am ashamed of this government’ over swingeing cuts to legal aid and barristers’ fees enacted by Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.

Sir Ivan vowed then ‘to stop them destroying the criminal justice system which my party has held so dear’. What led to this state of affairs? ‘The government had no fear of us, because we never took industrial action — it just carried on and on cutting fees. But then we did take action, and it backed off.’ For a time, at least: the wider legal aid row has just been reinvigorated elsewhere, by the government’s plans to axe two thirds of its contracts to on-call solicitors, which campaigners say will cause many smaller high-street firms to collapse.

Although his clients included members of ‘almost every notorious gang going’ in 1960s London and the grisly serial killer Dennis Nilsen, Sir Ivan says he has rarely sought to analyse the criminal mind, but to assess and present a client’s case as best he can. He argues that a barrister’s personal feelings about his client should stay out of trained advocacy: I have rarely heard the word ‘advocacy’ spoken with such meaningful reverence.

Still, he is often assailed by members of the public who ask him how he can bring himself to defend those whom he knows to be guilty. The simple answer is that he can’t: ‘Counsel has not only an obligation to the client but also to the court, and the one thing you can’t do is knowingly present a lie.

‘In fact the client normally comes to you, guilty as hell as he might be, and says: “This is a false accusation and I’m not guilty.” So what you have to do is not to argue with him and say, “You must be guilty,” but to say, well, let’s have a look at the evidence. And if the paper evidence is enormously against him you say, “Look, it doesn’t look as if you’re going to have much chance of winning, so why don’t you reconsider what you told me about being innocent, we can then plead guilty early enough and get a reduction of a third off your sentence?” But if people persist with “not guilty” then it is your duty to present that case to the best of your ability.’

It occurs to me that barristers require the equivalent of a bedside manner when dealing with potentially awkward clients: an art that the public rarely gets to see, bounded by rules it often doesn’t understand. The phrases ‘gravy train’ and ‘fat-cat lawyers’ slosh around the debate, yet most people seem still not to know that fees at the criminal bar, mainly funded by legal aid, are commonly a fraction of those earned in commercial work. A tiny number of criminal barristers still do very well, but — taking into account the expenses of the self-employed — growing numbers are working hard but struggling to make ends meet.

Do any cases haunt him? Not really, he says, but the 1983 Nilsen trial nags at him: ‘I think the jury convicted him of murder when he was clearly mad.’ Sir Ivan, as Nilsen’s counsel, argued for a verdict of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. He believes that a majority of the jury — after hearing confusing, contradictory evidence from a string of psychiatrists — somewhat understandably made it their priority simply to ensure that Nilsen was never released. Did Nilsen, the conscientious civil servant with young men’s corpses hidden under his floorboards, seem mad on the surface? ‘No, he didn’t,’ he says, but then reminds me of the physically nauseating and emotionally bizarre details of Nilsen’s extended killing spree, until I am compelled to agree that mad seems about right.

At the end of Sir Ivan’s vivid memoir My Life Of Crime, there is a rather touching chapter on the lessons he has learnt: one of them is to ‘think positive’. It cannot always have been easy. He has been happily married to his wife Gloria since 1966, but evidently deeply misses their daughter Rachel, a beloved only child who died last year aged 45. Rachel, a striking blonde, was born with the debilitating lung disease of cystic fibrosis but double helpings of the Lawrence verve: she became a criminal barrister like her father, was a talented pianist, and once appeared on Cilla Black’s Blind Date.

Today, the criminal bar is a place of bruised morale. Sir Ivan predicts that — should cuts continue — the best advocates will be driven into commercial work, and the quality of British justice will be damaged. ‘They’re still coming in, from all backgrounds, because they tell me they have a passion for criminal law,’ he says, ‘But they won’t stay.’ The QC himself, in the thick of crime for 53 years, could never be called a bolter. After a courteous farewell, he staunchly returns to preparations for his next case.

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  • GraveDave

    Sir Ivan sounds like a good, fair minded man.

  • RichardS

    Clown….was MP for Burton not Bolton

  • Terence Wilkinson

    What a shame for the poor criminals who might not be able to afford these high prices barristers. Perhaps they should have thought of that before they violated someone else’s human rights and commited their crime? Barristers like this are not virtuous heroes – they are living the good life off other people’s misery.

    • Shorne

      What if they are innocent?