Sir Anthony McCowan

Judge in the trial of Clive Ponting
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Anthony James Denys McCowan, judge: born Georgetown, British Guiana 12 January 1928; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1951; Deputy Chairman, East Sussex Quarter Sessions 1969-71; a Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-81; QC 1972; Kt 1981; a Judge of the High Court, Queen's Bench Division 1981-89; PC 1989; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1989-97; Senior Presiding Judge, England and Wales 1991-95; married 1961 Sue Harvey (two sons, one daughter); died London 3 July 2003.

In 1985 Anthony McCowan was the judge in the trial of the civil servant Clive Ponting, charged under section two of the Official Secrets Act 1911 with leaking an internal Ministry of Defence document which showed that, at the time of its sinking with the loss of 360 lives, the Argentinian ship the General Belgrano had been sailing out of the Falklands exclusion zone. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had argued that the sinking had been necessary to prevent the loss of British lives. Ponting sent the document to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell and, after he raised questions on the topic, a prosecution followed.

The choice of McCowan as the judge was perhaps unfortunate. He was a former member of the Bow Group and before he concentrated on the law had been on the Conservative Central Office's list of approved candidates. As a result there were arguments about whether he had been specifically appointed and, indeed, whether it would have been better for him to have stood down.

The case itself was a stormy one. Originally it had been announced that the case was not a matter of national security, but McCowan held meetings in his chambers which resulted in potential jurors being vetted by Special Branch officers. Under the Official Secrets Act there was a defence available to Ponting that he had acted in the interests of the state. McCowan ruled that the "interests of the state" defence had to be interpreted narrowly as meaning the "interests of the government of the day".

During the trial he clashed with the distinguished professor of law William Wade and also threatened Dalyell with contempt of court proceedings. He summed up heavily for a conviction and, when the jury showed no signs of following his advice, discussed the possibility of ordering them to return a directed verdict of guilty. In the event he did not and the jury, to much acclamation and discussion, returned a verdict of not guilty. Many thought that McCowan's hostile conduct of the case had been the decisive factor in the not guilty verdict.

Anthony James Denys McCowan, the younger son of a magistrate in British Guiana, was educated at Epsom College and Brasenose College, Oxford, to which he won a history scholarship. In 1951 he became a founder member of the Bow Group and wrote its first publication, Coloured Peoples in Britain (1952).

He decided, however, that the law was preferable to politics and was called the same year to the Bar at Gray's Inn, of which he became a Bencher in 1980. He practised on the South Eastern circuit, and became its popular leader in 1978. An Atkin scholar, he was pupilled to Stanley Rees at 1 Crown Office Row, where in turn he became head of chambers. His work was a steady mixed diet of crime and civil work "including a couple of 'witchcraft' cases", a good deal of it for the prosecution.

He took silk in 1972 and his road to the High Court bench took the traditional one of an appointment as Deputy Chairman of East Sussex Quarter Session in 1969. He was a made a Recorder in 1971, a position he held until his High Court appointment in 1981. McCowan was regarded as firm and sometimes impatient with the less adroit barristers who appeared before him, and even from time to time with the adroit. In 1982 he ruled against the footballer Kevin Keegan, alleged to have broken a contract with a sports promotional agency. The next year he barred Colin Hanoman, who had changed his name to Margaret Thatcher, and whose stance was admittedly disruptive, from standing as her "Conservationist Party" opponent in the general election.

From his appointment as a High Court judge, McCowan had been a regular member of the Court of Appeal and he was made a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1989, the same year he was appointed a Privy Councillor. He was one of the judges who ordered a new inquest into the death of "God's Banker", Robert Calvi, on whom a suicide verdict had initially been returned. It has recently been announced that four alleged Mafia members will stand trial for the killing. In 1991 he was a member of the court which quashed the convictions of the Maguire Seven, ruling that traces of explosive on their hands and gloves could have been the result of innocent contamination.

A speedy and indefatigable worker, McCowan was appointed Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales in 1991, a position which carried a high degree of administration. He also sat in the Court of Appeal until in 1995 his health began to give way and he retired in 1997. He had also been a member of the Parole Board from 1982 to 1984 and a member of the Crown Court Rule Committee from 1982 to 1988.

James Morton