Anthony Scrivener: Charismatic barrister who took many high-profile cases and was a reforming chairman of the Bar Council


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Anthony Scrivener was a forward-thinking judicial reformer and a one-time Labour Party supporter whose working class background helped make him a charismatic, combative barrister who became one of the best-paid in the country, the archetypal millionaire socialist.

Despite his spiky, blunt-talking tenacity and persistence – indeed, bolshiness – when necessary, “Scriv”, as he was known, was equally at home in a circuit court, the world of Far East high finance or in the television studio. His lack of pomposity and the fact that he never acquired a plummy accent perhaps made it easier for juries to relate to him.

Highly sought after, he handled a multitude of high-profile cases from all sides of the political divide involving, among others, Richard Branson, Guinness defendant Sir Jack Lyons, Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, the wrongly convicted Winston Silcott, the Cyprus-based fugitive Asil Nadir, and the disgraced former Conservative council leader Dame Shirley Porter. In 2005 he was approached to defend the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against charges of mass murder, as well as appearing before the House of Lords on behalf of air passengers claiming that airlines had failed to prevent deep vein thrombosis.

An avowed republican, Scrivener ruffled feathers and made enemies and relished challenging what he saw as the Bar’s antiquated conventions; he did not frequent the traditional watering holes and was seen as something of a loner, but was popular enough to be elected chairman of the Bar Council in 1991, the same year he was made a Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn.

As chairman, Scrivener raised the profile of the Bar with almost daily press releases. He criticised the judiciary, which he believed was full of a certain type of person – too old and too alike. An instinctive moderniser, he called for more non-white and women judges and a better system for choosing them; and as Bar chairman he pushed through a plan for more ethnic diversity with a proposal that all chambers should aim to recruit five per cent of their lawyers from ethnic minorities. He courted favour with the Bar’s rank and file by demanding that barristers not only be paid more but also faster, both by solicitors and the Legal Aid Fund.

Scrivener insisted that the courts should become user-friendly rather than judge-friendly and wrote a charter that was adopted by Prime Minister John Major. He attacked the police for being too prone to extract confessions and judges for being too trusting of police evidence; he suggested that certain trials could be televised and called for complex trials to be shortened for the sake of the jury and the legal-aid budget. One colleague noted, “He was one of the few chairmen of the Bar to have given the Bar some sort of profile and standing with the public, dragging it out of its introverted, navel-studying, insular and conservative ways, and giving it a public face.”

A tall, loping figure, Scrivener was described as the legal world’s Michael Heseltine, though with less flamboyant hair. He was active in Labour circles, canvassing and helping out with speeches, though less so during the Blair era than in Neil Kinnock’s, when he acted as Labour’s first-choice legal talking head on television. He gave money to the party and, with his second wife, Ying Hui Tan, a barrister and law reporter, he joined the fund-raising activities inspired by the author Ken Follett.

Born in Canterbury in 1935, he was the son of an ironmonger. An only child, he attended Kent College, and with help from his history teacher decided upon a career in law. After graduating from University College London he was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1958. He spent two years lecturing in Ghana before his political activities led to his being deported. He took on a number of menial jobs, including dish-washing and working in a pea-canning factory, to pay his way through pupillage. He started in practice in 1961 and took silk in 1975, the year he became a recorder of the Crown Court.

A captivating figure with an impressive courtroom presence and a desire to “leave no stone unturned in the interests of the client”, Scrivener was in demand to represent clients in some of the most high-profile cases of the day at home and abroad, ranging from high finance (including multi-million dollar fraud cases in Hong Kong) to murder and all areas in between. “A common law barrister like myself has seen every type of depravity possible – and can say it in Latin,” he said.

He was criticised for taking on clients like Asil Nadir or the businessman Owen Oyston, convicted of rape, but he was faithful to the “cab rank” rule that stops barristers turning down cases they don’t want. He never avoided legal aid cases, which earn about a quarter of the fees of private cases. He tried to ensure that a quarter of his work was legal aid and was on the pro bono panel that took Jamaican capital murder appeals to the Privy Council.

He acted both for and against surcharged Labour councillors. Ken Livingstone had Scrivener against him twice but still instructed him once himself. Scrivener also acted for striking miners, as well as for Militant. He felt no qualms about representing Dame Shirley Porter, the Westminster council leader ordered to pay a £27m surcharge for selling council houses cheaply to boost Tory support.

He represented Gerry Conlon, in his successful appeal against conviction for the Guildford pub bombing, and Winston  Silcott, who was accused of killing PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985. Other clients included Lee Clegg, the paratrooper charged with shooting a joyrider in Northern Ireland and Tony Martin, the farmer charged with murder after shooting a burglar in his home.

Scrivener was once spoken of as a potential Lord Chancellor, but his long involvement with Labour ended in 2007. He was against scrapping the double jeopardy rule and was severely troubled by the Blair administration’s approach to this and other issues. “First they started muttering about getting rid of jury trials, then [Blair] started wanting to appoint judges, and then there was the Iraq war,” he said. “I discovered this man was not Labour at all. He is in fact right-wing. I have no time for him.”

In his free time Scrivener enjoyed the company of his friends, walking his dog, sports cars and Formula 1, which he attended, track-side whenever possible.

Anthony Scrivener, barrister: born Canterbury 31 July 1935; married 1964 Irén Becze (divorced 1993; two children), 1993 Ying Hui Tan; died Suffolk 27 March 2015.