Obituary: Sir Bryan Roberts

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The Independent Online
A public servant in Africa and Britain for much of his life, Bryan Roberts thought and acted fast and decisively. As Attorney General, and later as the holder of the highest official posts in Malawi, he played a central role in that country's transition to independence. It was in large part due to his skill, judgment and tact, and above all his excellent relations with Dr Hastings Banda, that that transition proved to be so successful.

Bryan Clieve Roberts was born in 1923, and educated at Whitgift School and Magdalen College, Oxford. He served through the Second World War, being commissioned in the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery, with whom he saw active service in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

On being demobilised he was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1950 and entered the chambers of Viscount Hailsham QC, the future Lord Chancellor, for whom he was later to work when he returned from Africa. He then served in the Treasury Solicitors' Office for two years before entering the Colonial Legal Services in 1953, as a Crown Counsel in what was at that time Northern Rhodesia.

He served there until 1961 successively as Crown Counsel and Director of Public Prosecutions. In 1961 he was appoint-ed Solicitor-General of the neighbouring protectorate of Nyasaland (now Malawi) which, with Northern and Southern Rhodesia, had become part of the Central Africa Federation in 1953. In moving to Nyasaland he joined a number of other senior officials who had also spent their earliest careers in Northern Rhodesia: Glyn Jones, the Governor, and Robin Foster, the Chief Secretary.

His service in Africa covered the whole of the federal period, Nyasaland's struggle to secede from it and Malawi's early years of independence. In Malawi he was successively Solicitor-General, Attorney-General and Secretary to the President and Cabinet. From July 1965 until May 1972 he concurrently held the posts of Attorney-General, Secretary for Justice, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service.

He worked closely with ministers, and especially during the early years following independence in July 1964, was intimately involved with the decisions which Dr Banda - first Prime Minister and then President - made. He was a strong supporter of the President and a firm, indeed at times tough, adviser to him.

During this period a number of crucial events took place: the cabinet revolt only a few weeks after independence in which all Banda's ministers either resigned or were dismissed; the armed rebellions of Chipembere in 1965 and Chisiza in 1967; changes to the criminal justice system which resulted in the resignation of the whole high court bench in 1970; Banda's relations - diplomatic and economic - with South Africa; the "slow but sure" Africanisation of the civil service; and the early stages of a regime which became increasingly harsh after Roberts left. In 1972 he handed over to the first Malawian Secretary to the President and Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service, George Jaffu, whom he had guided and advised over the preceding few years.

Banda's tasks at this time were far from easy and he had many enemies both within and without the country. That he survived, indeed flourished, and placed the country on as sound an economic footing as possible in the early days of independence (although things deteriorated badly later on) was in no small measure due to the support and advice given to him by Roberts.

In those early days Banda was much admired by international aid donors for the sensible and proper way external aid was used in Malawi and this, too, owed a great deal to Roberts. His advice to the President, frequently subtly phrased, also saved a number of expatriates from the sting of Banda's fly whisk. Roberts was above all pragmatic and this fitted well with Banda's approach to economics and politics in Africa.

In 1972 Roberts returned to Britain, and in the following year he entered the Lord Chancellor's Department as Training Officer for the lay magistracy. By contrast to the range and importance of his responsibilities in Malawi, this was a modest appointment, but Roberts undertook it with enthusiasm. His energy and drive led to his being appointed Deputy Secretary of Commissions and, on Sir Thomas Skyrme's retirement in 1977, Secretary of Commissions, and thus the Lord Chancellor's principal adviser on the appointment and work of the magistracy. Roberts also followed Skyrme in energetically developing the work of the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association of which he served as Chairman from 1979, before becoming Life Vice-President in 1994.

In 1982 Roberts was appointed a Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, and served at Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court in Inner London until his retirement in 1993. The work there was congenial to him, and he acquired a reputation for genial tolerance towards the accused appearing before him. A characteristic enquiry by Roberts to a defendant, however, was: "If you were parking, how is it you were exceeding the speed limit?"

Bryan Roberts had style, and a memorable presence and personality. Tall, elegant, amusing and tough-minded, he possessed a sardonic sense of humour and a passion for exact English, and he was quick to correct linguistic solecisms. He could be acerbic on occasions, but he was a kind man and a good friend. Colleagues who worked less swiftly than he did frequently had to cope with visits from Roberts, who had finished all his own work and wanted to exchange humorous gossip with them.

Bryan Clieve Roberts, lawyer and civil servant: born 22 March 1923; Called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1950; Crown Counsel, Northern Rhodesia 1953-60, Director of Public Prosecutions 1960-61; QC (Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) 1961; Solicitor-General, Nyasaland 1961-64; Attorney General of Malawi 1964-72; CMG 1964, KCMG 1973; Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet, and Head of Malawi Civil Service 1965-72; Lord Chancellors' Office 1973- 82, Under Secretary 1977-82; married 1958 Pamela Campbell (marriage dissolved), 1976 Brigitte Reilly-Morrison (marriage dissolved), 1985 Barbara Forter; died London 6 December 1996.