Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

Solicitor General and then Attorney General under three Conservative prime ministers
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The Independent Online

Peter Rawlinson was a poet and a talented artist, writes John Barnes. He had published War Poems and Poetry Today in 1943, and later publications included Public Duty and Personal Faith: the example of Thomas More (1978) and The Jesuit Factor (1990). He produced seven novels, achieving more than minor status as a credible writer of legal thrillers; as might be expected, they were strong on court action. His début novel was a thriller, Colombia Syndicate (1991), and it was followed in quick succession by Hatred and Contempt (1992), His Brother's Keeper (1993) and Indictment for Murder (1994). Characterisation was his strong point and the intricate psychological relationship at the heart of Indictment for Murder is developed with great skill. But his plots could be convoluted and The Caverel Claim (1998) has an unsatisfactory ending. With advancing years, the pace of production lessened, but both The Richmond Diary (2001) and A Relic of War (2004) were good reads. Peter Anthony Grayson Rawlinson, lawyer and politician: born Iping, West Sussex 26 June 1919; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1946, Bencher 1962, Reader 1983, Treasurer 1984; MP (Conservative) for Epsom 1955-74, for Epsom and Ewell 1974-78; QC 1959; Recorder of Salisbury 1961-62; Kt 1962; Solicitor General 1962-64; PC 1964; Chairman, Parliamentary Legal Committee 1967-70; Attorney General 1970-74; called to the Bar, Northern Ireland 1972; QC (NI) 1972; Attorney General for Northern Ireland 1972-74; Leader, Western Circuit 1975-82; Chairman, Senate of Inns of Court and Bar 1975-76, President 1986-87; created 1978 Baron Rawlinson of Ewell; married 1940 Haidee Kavanagh (two daughters, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1954), 1954 Elaine Dominguez (two sons, one daughter); died 28 June 2006.

The law has contributed more occupants to top positions in British politics than any other profession. A small number of lawyer politicians have been willing to follow a more specific career path, as Law Officers - as Attorney General or Solicitor General. The restriction has usually appealed more to the distinguished lawyer than to the professional politician - and Peter Rawlinson was one such.

Peter Rawlinson served as Solicitor General, from 1962 to 1964, under Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Attorney General, 1970-74, under Ted Heath. He was first and foremost a lawyer, and perhaps more a believer in public service than in the Conservative Party. It was his fate as a Law Officer to be involved in several high-profile, complex and sensitive cases.

It might be thought that Peter Rawlinson was destined for a career in law and politics, since he numbered MPs - including Edmund Burke - and barristers among his forebears. His father, however, Lt-Col Arthur Rawlinson, had spurned politics for a fulfilling life as a writer and follower of country sports. Peter was educated by the Benedictines at Downside. He then spent a year at Christ's College, Cambridge, reading Law but when war broke out in 1939 went to Sandhurst. He joined the Irish Guards the next year and saw action in North Africa.

Rawlinson was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1946 and worked hard. In 1955 he was junior counsel for the defence of Ruth Ellis, who had killed her lover and was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Public concern over the execution helped bring about a change in the law which effectively abolished capital punishment 10 years later.

After taking silk in 1959 he was fortunate enough to join the chambers of the eminent QC Gerald Gardiner, a future Labour Lord Chancellor. Rawlinson learnt much from the great man and picked up some crumbs from his table, in the form of clients who could not afford Gardiner's services. By the 1960s Rawlinson had acquired an enviable reputation as a barrister. He was a persuasive advocate and could quickly detect the weaknesses in a case.

While making his way in the law Rawlinson stood, in 1951, as a Conservative candidate in the hopeless Hackney South constituency. He then landed the plum seat of Epsom in 1955, on the elevation of its MP David Maxwell Fyfe to the Lords as Viscount Kilmuir and his appointment to the office of Lord Chancellor. Rawlinson held the seat (renamed Epsom and Ewell in 1974) until his retirement from the House of Commons in 1978.

In July 1962 a demoralised Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his Cabinet in the famous Night of the Long Knives. One of the casualties was none other than Kilmuir. In the reshuffle, Rawlinson was made Solicitor General, the second Law Officer of the Crown. He was also knighted, as is customary for a Law Officer, and worked closely with Sir John Hobson, the Attorney General.

In November 1962 they had to deal with the case of the homosexual Admiralty clerk William Vassall, who was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Allegations were also made about ministers and other civil servants, and Tam Galbraith, a junior minister, resigned because of the allegations. The charges were subsequently refuted by a tribunal of judicial enquiry under Lord Radcliffe and Galbraith was exonerated and restored to office.

An effect of this episode was that senior ministers, including the Law Officers, were slow to react to allegations about the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, in early 1963. Rawlinson was one of those who interviewed Profumo about his alleged relationship with a prostitute, Christine Keeler. He believed Profumo's denials of a relationship and subsequently drafted the minister's denial of the affair in the House of Commons. On 5 June, however, Profumo resigned and admitted that he had lied to the House. Macmillan and the Law Officers were attacked for their gullibility at least and incompetence at worst. Rawlinson offered his resignation but this was refused by Macmillan.

Rawlinson voted for Reginald Maudling rather than Ted Heath in the contest for the Conservative leadership consequent on Home's resignation in 1965. He then decided to leave the front bench in the same year and resume his career at the Bar. He defended the Daily Express in the notorious D Notice Affair. The paper proposed to publish a story that the Ministry of Defence routinely examined copies of overseas cables from the General Post Office and Cable and Wireless. A D Notice committee, consisting of defence officials and journalists, warned the editor that the story, if carried, could breach security. The Express went ahead and published and in spite of heavy-handed treatment from the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, Rawlinson was successful in court in defending the newspaper.

On the retirement in 1967 of his good friend John Hobson, Rawlinson became the shadow cabinet's legal adviser. As expected, Heath made him Attorney General when he formed his government in June 1970. The next 44 months were tumultuous and, by the end, many of the chief figures were exhausted. Perhaps no ministerial duty proved more demanding than Rawlinson's. Although he was sustained by an equable temperament and the respect of colleagues for his judgement and integrity, the job took its toll.

Within days of taking office he prosecuted for the Crown against the Hosein brothers for kidnapping and murdering Muriel McKay (who had been mistaken for Mrs Rupert Murdoch). In September 1970, Arab terrorists were foiled in an attempt to seize an El-Al plane which made an unscheduled landing at Heathrow. The Government held the surviving hijacker, Leila Khaled. But what to do with her, as terrorists seized other planes and British lives were placed in danger? Rawlinson eventually advised that, because it was not clear that the seizure had been attempted over British airspace, and taking into account Britain's national interest, she could be freed.

In August 1972 Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, expelled Asians from his country. Many had British passports and wished to come here. Although the Government was pledged to restrict immigration, Rawlinson advised that ministers had no choice but to admit them. These and some of his other decisions were deeply unpalatable to sections of the party and in the media.

The next month, he was also called on to prosecute Times Newspapers Ltd, when The Sunday Times wished to publish an account of the deformities caused to children whose mothers had taken the drug Thalidomide. The paper had already published the first in a series of articles and the second was sent in advance to the Attorney General and Distillers, the makers of the drug, for comment.

Distillers had complained that a number of cases were already under consideration and that publication was designed to promote public opinion in favour of one side against the other.

The parties agreed that the Government should bring a "friendly" test case and Rawlinson sought an injunction from the courts, forbidding The Sunday Times to publish. The House of Lords finally agreed to grant an injunction on the grounds of contempt. The decision, however, was overturned in Strasbourg, on the grounds that it was a breach of the Convention on Human Rights. Subsequently English law was brought into line with this judgment.

The workload on Rawlinson was increased because the Solicitor General, Sir Geoffrey Howe (1970-72), had been landed with the formidable tasks of handling the legislation for the mammoth Industrial Relations Act and then for Britain's entry to the European Community.

In 1972, as a result of the introduction of direct rule over Northern Ireland, Rawlinson assumed the additional duties of Attorney General for the province. In addition, the Angry Brigade, a group of anarchists, tried to blow up his house and he and his family henceforth required round-the-clock armed police protection. He decided that he was paying a price too high and resolved to make the general election of October 1974 his last.

The job of a Law Officer is to give unbiased legal advice to the Government. He is, inevitably, somewhat apart from colleagues and on occasion acts as a restraint on, or as a goad to, actions which they may resent. Rawlinson was always conscious of his constitutional responsibilities as a Law Officer of the Crown and would never have placed the interests of party before the administration of the rule of law. He was uncomfortable about the increasing, if unspoken, pressures on Law Officers to support the Government.

In retirement he thought that the leaking, for political reasons, of the confidential advice of the Solicitor General to Michael Heseltine over the Westland affair in 1986 confirmed his fears. His successors also spent less time in the courts so that they could be more at the beck and call of the Cabinet. Rawlinson's independence was helped by his greater love for the law than politics and his willingness to give up the latter.

Once he left the front bench, Rawlinson did not miss the political game. He did not get on with Margaret Thatcher. When he finally left the Commons in 1978, Thatcher was prevailed on to recommend him for a peerage. He was a One Nation Tory and she was moving the party in a different direction.

Until the law was changed in 1974 he was debarred, as a Roman Catholic, from rising to Lord Chancellor. On his retirement from the Bar in 1985, aged 65, he indicated, via the Cabinet Secretary, his wish to be of some public service. The rebuff from No 10: "He will get no preferment from me." Preferment was not what he had had in mind.

Retirement from the front bench allowed Rawlinson to follow his interests in painting and writing, and he was talented at both. He published novels, a book of poetry and works exploring the role of the Jesuits. His novels drew on his knowledge of politics and the law and were well reviewed. Well into his seventies he was still physically active and had a lively mind. In 1975 he was chairman of the Bar and between 1978 and 1985 leader of the Western Circuit.

In these years he appeared for James Goldsmith against Private Eye, for Indira Gandhi and even for Lord Goodman. In 1980 he defended the Daily Mail against the Moonies in a libel case, when the paper had campaigned against the organisation on the grounds that it broke up families. Rawlinson was in court from October 1980 until March 1981, called over a hundred witnesses, and fought what was the longest libel action with a jury. The stakes were high but the newspaper group won.

A rare reverse came in 1983 when The Guardian decided to replace him as its counsel when the Secretary of State for Defence demanded the return of documents which a civil servant, Sarah Tisdall, had leaked to the paper.

In his private life, Peter Rawlinson was sustained by a happy marriage to an American citizen, Elaine Dominguez, in 1954 and their two sons and a daughter. Her skill as an interior designer reinforced his own artistic side. His first marriage to Haidee Kavanagh produced three daughters and was annulled.

Dennis Kavanagh