Dame Shirley sat primly as court heard of her `ruin'

IF A MARTIAN who had never heard of Dame Shirley Porter had wandered into the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday, he could have been forgiven for concluding that she was the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice.

He would have heard a chilling account of how Dame Shirley, the upstanding former Conservative leader of Westminster City Council, was destroyed by a deadly combination of her political opponents, a hostile media and a district auditor named John Magill.

It was Mr Magill who found her guilty of "improper and disgraceful gerrymandering" in relation to the "homes for votes" scandal in Westminster and ordered her to pay a surcharge of pounds 27m. Yesterday she asked the Appeal Court to quash his findings, arguing that he had displayed "apparent bias" against her and had reached his verdict after an "unreasonable delay".

The appeal is the latest round in a long saga that dates back to the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher was firmly ensconced in Downing Street and Dame Shirley, heiress to the Tesco millions, was leader of the flagship Tory council.

In 1987, Dame Shirley and David Weeks, her deputy, hatched a plan to sell off council houses in marginal Westminster wards, hoping that Conservative voters would snap them up. Mr Magill, appointed to investigate the affair in 1989, produced a scathing report in 1996 in which he accused them of "wilful misconduct".

Yesterday Dame Shirley, who appealed without success to the High Court in 1997, embarked on another attempt to clear her name. Having failed to secure the services of Lord Neill, the barrister appointed to remove corruption from public life, she engaged Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, to put her case in the Appeal Court.

She listened, eyes downcast, hands primly clasped on her lap, as Lord Lester, the venerable human rights lawyer, outlined the personal toll of the past decade. "She has suffered stress and anxiety in the course of this lengthy and disproportionate investigation," he told Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Lord Justices Schiemann and Robert Walker.

"The mud that was slung at Dame Shirley has undoubtedly stuck to her, and it has entirely marred her political and personal reputation across the country. Throughout the seven years of the investigation, her family and social life have been disrupted, she has incurred ever-mounting legal costs and has remained uncertain as to the outcome and the sanction."

Much has changed over that period, not least the political climate. Dame Shirley, 68, divides her time between Tel Aviv and Palm Springs. The years have not been kind to her; her features are pinched and sag in strange places; her hair is a fiercely sculpted auburn helmet that remains immobile however much she tosses her head.

Her tormenter, Mr Magill, was in court yesterday, but the two exchanged not so much as a glance. His lawyers will have their turn later this week. Dame Shirley's long-suffering husband, Sir Leslie Porter, turned up to support her, with their two children, Linda and John.

As Lord Lester revealed that Mr Magill's "gigantic" investigation had cost more than pounds 3m, Dame Shirley raised her mascara-laden eyes heavenwards, a gesture of Thatcherite disapproval at so much money wasted on something so trivial.

Lord Lester argued that she had not received a fair hearing at the High Court, where, he said, the principle of presumption of innocence had been breached.

He condemned the "grossly unfair" way in which Mr Magill announced his provisional findings at a televised press conference in January 1994, reading out a floridly worded statement that conveyed "an aura of guilty wrongdoing" and cast her as "an unscrupulous political ringleader".

He also sent what he called "a note" to her political opponents; the note ran to 235 pages and was accompanied by 13 appendices, including a 350-page history, plus 14 lever-arch files containing more than 10,000 pages of documents. This led, as became clear from reports in newspapers the following day, to a "well-organised, deliberate and targeted leaking".

The appeal is expected to last a week and judgment will be reserved. If Dame Shirley loses again, she intends to take her case to the House of Lords. A family friend, Roger Rosewell, said outside court: "She has said all along that she will fight it all the way. She is determined to prove her innocence and clear her name. Losing does not enter into her vocabulary."

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