Sir Henry Fisher

Brilliant lawyer and energetic public servant
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The Independent Online

Harry Fisher was one of the most brilliant lawyers to appear in the generation after the Second World War. His speed of apprehension and his capacity to analyse and organise voluminous material in the shortest possible time were amazing. The re-ordered data could then be presented by him - orally or in writing - with extreme clarity and force.

Henry Arthur Pears Fisher, lawyer and public servant: born Repton, Derbyshire 20 January 1918; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1946; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1946-73, Estates Bursar 1961-66, Sub-Warden 1965-67, Emeritus Fellow 1976-91, Distinguished Fellow 1991-2000, Honorary Fellow 2000-05; QC 1960; Recorder of Canterbury 1962-68; Chairman, General Council of the Bar 1966-68; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division 1968-70; Kt 1968; Chairman, Committee of Inquiry into Abuse of the Social Security System 1971; Chairman, City Committee on Company Law 1974-76; Chairman, Governing Body, Imperial College 1975-88; President, Wolfson College, Oxford 1975-85, Honorary Fellow 1985-2005; Chairman, Pilgrim Trust 1979-83, 1989-92; Chairman, Appeal Committee, Panel on Take-overs and Mergers 1981-87; Chairman, Joint Commission on the Constitution 1981-83; President, Howard League for Penal Reform 1983-91; Chairman, Investment Management Regulatory Organisation 1986-88; married 1948 Felicity Sutton (one son, three daughters); died Marlborough, Wiltshire 10 April 2005.

Harry Fisher was one of the most brilliant lawyers to appear in the generation after the Second World War. His speed of apprehension and his capacity to analyse and organise voluminous material in the shortest possible time were amazing. The re-ordered data could then be presented by him - orally or in writing - with extreme clarity and force.

His career straddled the Bar, the Bench, the City and the world of academe in a manner that is without parallel. His interests extended to education (school and university), to penal reform and into all branches of science. His outstanding talents made him the natural choice to conduct important inquiries on behalf of government and others. Such leisure as his restless spirit allowed him was spent with his wife Felicity and children and friends or at the keyboard. His passion was J.S. Bach, whose works he performed with great ability and affection.

Henry Arthur Pears Fisher ("Harry Fisher" to all the world) was the eldest of the six sons of Geoffrey Fisher - at the time of Harry's birth Headmaster of Repton, later Bishop of London, and translated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1945. Harry went to school at Marlborough (where his father had once taught). He moved on to Christ Church, Oxford, where in 1938 he obtained a First in Classical Honour Moderations. He had already demonstrated his mastery of the languages by winning the Gaisford Greek Prose Prize in 1937 and receiving an honourable mention in the Ireland Scholarship. He embarked in 1938 on the next part of his studies, the degree of Lit Hum, but the advent of war compelled him after one and a half years to take a War Degree (unclassified).

In 1940 Fisher joined the Leicestershire Regiment and remained in it until 1946. He was posted to India and served also in Burma and Malaya. He went to the Staff College in Quetta in 1943, became a GSO2 in that year and a GSO1 at the Headquarters of the 14th Army in 1945. He left the Army in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, having been mentioned in despatches. He was then aged 28.

He decided to read for the Bar and was called by the Inner Temple in 1946. In the same year he entered the Prize Fellowship examination at All Souls College. He courageously applied as a candidate in Law, notwithstanding the fact that he had not read for a Law degree. His election in November 1946 began a long connection with the college, in various different categories of Fellowship. Between 1961 and 1966 he held the office of Estates Bursar - an appointment which coincided with most of the period when Fisher was working flat out as a silk appearing regularly in court and giving advice in weighty matters. Only individuals with the energy and self-confidence of a Richard Wilberforce or a Harry Fisher would be capable thus of serving two masters and bearing such burdens.

Fisher was a junior counsel from 1946 to 1960. In that year he took silk. His first major brief arrived out of the blue in January 1961. He had about 10 days in which to prepare for a case in the Restrictive Practices Court on behalf of the Cement Manufacturers. He was ready to open the case on time and after a three-week hearing won the case. That case brought Fisher's name to the attention of all solicitors who needed to employ counsel with a rapier mind and a phenomenal capacity for hard work. However he did not confine himself to his own work but deployed his energy and skills on behalf of the profession. After service on the Bar Council he was Chairman of the Bar from 1966 to 1968.

He was much in demand as a silk. He was asked to act in one case where two more senior silks had in succession returned the brief on accepting appointment to the Bench (first Fred Lawton, next Stanley Rees). When Fisher met the client he observed, "You have been unfortunate in your choice of counsel", to which came the reply, "We don't have to worry with you. Your clerk says you will never be a judge."

Though true for the particular case, this prophecy was not fulfilled. At the beginning of 1968 Harry Fisher accepted appointment as a High Court Judge (Queen's Bench Division). Much of his time was spent out of London trying criminal cases on circuit and living in judges' lodgings. This life style proved to be totally uncongenial to him and he sorely missed the intellectual challenge of arguing complex cases as counsel. He concluded that he had made a mistake and he resigned from his judicial appointment in the summer of 1970. Such a resignation after only two and a half years of service was without precedent and caused astonishment in the legal profession and anger in some quarters. The media took a more relaxed attitude.

With such a brief term as a judge there was hardly time for him to make his mark on the law. (He was in any event unsympathetic to innovative decision-making by judges. Law reform he thought was a matter for the Law Commission and Parliament.) But in July 1968 he was the junior member in a Court of Appeal decision that quashed the conviction for obscenity entered against the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn. This case sounded the death knell for prosecutions on the grounds of obscenity of books with literary merit (real or plausibly claimed).

Fisher moved to the City in 1970. He became a director of J. Henry Schroder Wagg & Co under the chairmanship of his friend Gordon Richardson (later Governor of the Bank of England and Lord Richardson of Duntisbourne). There he remained for five years, also serving on the board of Schroder International. Later in his career Fisher returned to the City as Chairman of the Appeal Committee of the Take-over Panel (1981 to 1987). He was also involved in self-regulation in the City in his capacity as founder chairman of Imro (the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation).

In 1975 a new opportunity for service presented itself. Sir Isaiah Berlin, the first President of Wolfson College, Oxford, was due to retire. Fisher was elected as his successor. This proved to be a brilliant appointment. Harry and his wife Felicity moved to the house which borders on the grounds of the college. Wolfson was and is a college for graduate students, many of them from overseas and many married. The Fishers knew all the students by name and knew what each was studying. An exceptional degree of pastoral care was displayed by them to these students and their families. No visitor to the college could fail to be struck by the warmth of these relationships. It is not surprising to find that out of all aspects of his career Harry Fisher put first in his Who's Who entry "President, Wolfson College, Oxford, 1975-85, Hon Fellow 1985".

Notwithstanding the disfavour with which Fisher continued to be regarded by much of the legal establishment after he left the Bench, the Government was quick to appreciate that there was now available an individual with exceptional skills who could be called upon to undertake the role of chairman in difficult inquiries.

The first such appointment came the year after ceased to be a judge. In March 1971 he was asked by the Minister for Social Services and the Minister for Employment and Productivity to head a committee to investigate and report on abuse of social security benefits. By October 1972 the committee produced a painstaking report which included 88 recommendations aimed at minimising the number of benefit frauds.

Although, as with any committee report, it is difficult to spot the fingerprints of any particular member, a couple of the recommendations may be noted as exemplifying Fisher's approach in public affairs. The committee recommended that the departments should not be inhibited in their efforts to detect working and drawing benefit "by fear of criticism for excessive zeal"; it further recommended that the departments should continue to use and follow up information about alleged abuse received (anonymously or otherwise) from the public, but that the departments "should not take any positive steps to encourage the general public to inform". The first advocates right conduct by public officials notwithstanding the risk of criticism; the second abhors the creation of a Stasi-like informer society.

In the Confait inquiry (1975-77) Fisher was asked by the Crown to examine a gravely flawed prosecution which had resulted in the conviction of three young men - all for arson, one for murder, and another for manslaughter. On a reference by the Home Secretary, the Court of Appeal, presided over by Lord Scarman, had quashed all the convictions. In the ensuing investigation, Fisher heard evidence from numerous witnesses and scrutinised a mass of documents. He concluded that there had been blatant disregard by the police of the Judges' Rules (designed to secure fair procedures for the interrogation of suspects). His cogent report recommended radical changes in the system. This led directly to the appointment of the Philipps Commission and thence to the enactment of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. The following year the Crown Prosecution Service was established. Fisher's report laid the groundwork for all these reforms.

In 1979 Fisher was asked by Lloyd's of London to conduct an inquiry into self-regulation at the institution. The following year he produced a seminal report recommending the adoption of the new constitution which he had drafted. One aspect of this was the creation of a new governing council. Effective disciplinary machinery was also put in place. A novel feature was a clause protecting council members from claims for negligence; liability was made to depend on bad faith. The main recommendations were adopted by Lloyd's with alacrity and gratitude. Fisher's name was put on the wall at Lloyd's in letters of gold.

Fisher had a lifelong interest in scientific developments. It was very appropriate that Lord Sherfield should in 1973 have introduced him to Imperial College as a member of the Governing Body. From 1975 to 1988 he was its much-respected chairman. Another role which he undertook was the Presidency of the Howard League for Penal Reform (in succession to Gerald Gardiner), from 1983 to 1991. He was a successful fund-raiser on behalf of the league and a gracious host at its annual September conference in Oxford.

For the last few years Harry Fisher lived quietly in retirement at Marlborough, where he had been a member of the governing council of the school for many years.

Patrick Neill

Your obituary of Sir Henry Fisher [by Lord Neill of Bladen, 14 April] refers to the public inquiry which he conducted into the wrongful conviction of three youths in the Confait case, and rightly observes the masterly analysis and recommendations that Fisher made, leading to the Phillips Commission and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, writes Sir Louis Blom-Cooper.

It omits, however, to say anything about the killing of Maxwell Confait, a transvestite homosexual, in his flat in Lewisham. Harry Fisher's fact-finding decisions demonstrated how often one finds that a brilliant legal mind is less than adept at understanding how human beings behave and the proper inferences to be drawn from factual material.

In the Confait case, three boys were arrested for the murder of Maxwell Confait. Lattimore and Leighton were charged with murder (the former being convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility). The third boy, a Turkish Cypriot by the name of Salih, was charged only with arson, together with the other two accused. The Crown's case, throughout the trial, was that Salih had merely stood in the doorway of the room, watching the other two engaged in strangling Confait.

At the public inquiry, it was proved that Lattimore had a cast-iron alibi; he could not have been present at the killing. I was counsel for the three boys, and urged Harry Fisher to find that, in the circumstances of the removal of Lattimore as one of the two killers, the only sensible thing to conclude was that the case against all three collapsed and no alternative scenario could be sustained. Fisher disagreed. His report said that, "without doing too much violence to the evidence" (sic), the killers were Leighton and Salih, the latter never having been charged on indictment with any homicidal offence, although initially the prosecution had thought he might have been involved.

That was not the end of the affair. Some little time later two men serving prison sentences for other crimes fully confessed to having been the killers of Confait. Fisher's absurd finding was further trumped by the official acceptance of the confessions.

Commendably, Harry Fisher never sought to defend his findings to me, and I had quite a lot to do with him when we were respectively, and amicably, President and Chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform from 1983 to 1984. He acknowledged, by implication, that he had got egg on his face.