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Richard Ferguson: QC who defended Rosemary West, Terry Marsh and Patrick Magee

Richard Ferguson was a QC who, after arriving on the London legal scene in the early 1980s, went on to feature in a stream of the most high-profile criminal cases of the last two decades.

These included the trials of Rosemary West, wife of the mass-murderer Fred West, of the IRA Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, and many other cases of murder and attempted murder. He also appeared for Ernest Saunders in the famous Guinness trial and, among scores of other prominent actions, successfully defended two British soldiers accused of war crimes in Iraq.

His efficacy meant that he was sought out for many plum cases; he built an impressive reputation – and made serious money – at the Bar. It was once said of him: "He is God. He has the kind of voice that could read the jury a phone book and they would listen."

Originating in Northern Ireland, he was both a politician and a barrister before moving to London.

Richard Ferguson was born into nonconformist Protestant farming stock in Derrygonnelly, County Fermanagh, where his father Wesley was a police sergeant. He attended Methodist College in Belfast before studying law in the city. He said he was drawn to the law by The Winslow Boy, Terence Rattigan's play about a naval cadet wrongly accused of stealing, who is cleared by the efforts of a brilliant lawyer.

"What has always driven me has been the desire to stand up for the little man," said Ferguson, "and to take on the powers of the state and, where possible, secure a verdict of 'not guilty'.

"What I always wanted to do was to take on the unpopular client and to demonstrate that the popular conception of the case was wrong."

Much of his early work was in Fermanagh, a rural county where juries were notoriously thran (a Northern Irish word meaning stubborn, awkward, contrary) and traditionally disinclined to convict anyone of anything. Before tackling the vagaries of Fermanagh juries, judges and counsel would fortify themselves with a highly convivial evening of dinner and drinks at the Imperial Hotel in Enniskillen. Ferguson quickly made a name for himself, first in insurance cases and then in the criminal work which was the mainstay of his career.

In common with several other members of the Ferguson family he went into politics, taking a seat in 1968 for the Ulster Unionist Party in the then Stormont parliament. He was a strong supporter of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill's well-meaning but ineffectual attempts to reform unionism and improve community relations. According to a Catholic contemporary, "[Ferguson] was personally very liberal, totally devoid of any sectarianism."

His particular brand of moderation was not, however, appreciated by everyone and when his home was damaged in an explosion, caused probably by extreme loyalists, he quit politics to concentrate on the law. He took silk in Belfast in 1973.

As the troubles developed he appeared before fewer juries since cases involving the IRA, loyalists, soldiers and policemen were tried in single-judge "Diplock" courts. Ferguson represented all of these groups of people. "I am very ecumenical," he said. "No one was ever able to pigeonhole me."

He caused a major stir in 1984, especially since he was regarded as a man of particularly steady character, when he suddenly left Northern Ireland. He gave little or no notice of his departure, startling both legal colleagues and the client he was defending in a major IRA "supergrass" trial. At first, some wondered how he would fare outside of the narrow confines of Northern Ireland, but it rapidly became clear that he was destined to be a big fish in a big pool.

His cases involved the property tycoon Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, Richard Branson of Virgin, Afghan airplane hijackers, the Birmingham Six, Guinness boss Ernest Saunders and the boxer Terry Marsh. He regretted, he once said, not having the chance to defend Michael Jackson.

One of Ferguson's most celebrated cases arose from a 1989 attack on the boxing promoter Frank Warren, who was shot by a masked gunman while attending a fight. Terry Marsh, a famous East End boxing champion whom Warren had once managed and had quarreled with, was charged with attempted murder in a trial which attracted widespread publicity.

Marsh was acquitted, with Ferguson staging a virtuoso performance: commentators said he had given one witness a "mauling" and had produced "many moments of pure theatre".

By the mid 1990s he was chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and by 2003 he was the top-earning criminal defence barrister, one of the biggest-hitters of the criminal bar.

A journalist wrote of one of his trials: "It takes no time to identify the star of the show. He has a powerful presence in court, as well as humour and charm, but there is a hint of danger in the air from the moment he starts cross-examination."

Another observer wrote of him, slightly fancifully: "With his beautifully tempered advocacy his style is not to declaim to the jury, but to seduce them with his Ulster brogue. One could almost hear the peat crackling in the hearth and smell the Black Bush whiskey as he poured scorn on the Crown's case."

He was unusually willing to comment on cases out of court, which he did in the case of Rosemary West, whom he unsuccessfully defended on ten charges of the murder of young women and girls. Her husband, Fred, committed suicide before he could be tried.

Ferguson declared: "She did not get a fair trial because the media had hyped up the situation to such an extent that no jury could have possibly judged her case dispassionately.

"Fred was dead and somebody had to be held responsible. If he'd been alive she might have been acquitted."

His toughest adversary, he said, was the late George Carman QC, whom he described as "without doubt the best advocate I have ever come across.

"He kept doing things which I regarded as professionally inappropriate," Ferguson recalled. "You had to be on your toes with George – he was regarded by the judges as a little bit naughty but very engaging."

Ferguson was keen on walking, climbing and Arsenal Football Club. He was not interested in retirement, taking cases until earlier this year.

David McKittrick

Richard Ferguson QC: born 22 August 1935 Derrygonnelly, County Fermanagh; married first Janet Magowan (marriage dissolved, three sons, one daughter), secondly Roma Whelan; died London 26 July 2009.