Lord Hutton: The judge who has put the nation's leaders in the dock

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The armed police officers who travel everywhere with Sir Brian Hutton are a constant reminder to the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland that he can never escape his past. For Lord Hutton's judicial career was forged in the darkest days of the Troubles, at a time when a call to the bench came with round-the-clock security.

But it is his hold on the future of the BBC and the political fortunes of the Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that have thrust him into the full glare of the limelight. His much-anticipated report into the death of the former weapons inspector Dr David Kelly is expected to be published in mid-January.

James Brian Edward Hutton was born into a middle-class family in Belfast in 1931. His father, James Hutton, a Presbyterian senior rail executive, sent him to Brackenber House, a preparatory school, where he became head boy. Later he won a scholarship to Shrewsbury School, a public school whose more famous alumni include Charles Darwin, Michael Heseltine, Paul Foot and Richard Ingrams. By all accounts, the young Hutton did not enjoy his time there. One family friend says: "His mother used to bring him breakfast in bed, so I think the shock of the austerity of an English public school came as a something of a rude awakening."

It is still unusual for a middle-class Belfast family to send their children to England for a private schooling, because of the sense of pride that Belfast people have in their state school education system.

"When Brian Hutton left for England it must have seemed very odd indeed, not something that would have impressed his contemporaries," says a senior Ulster solicitor.

After Shrewsbury, Hutton went to Oxford, where he gained a first in jurisprudence. His Ulster accent marked him out and made it difficult to be accepted by the English public schoolboys who dominated Oxbridge in 1950s. "He certainly built up a sense of being someone different, which might have helped him work so hard to achieve his academic ambitions," says the family friend.

Brian Hutton then returned to Belfast where he completed the final spell of his studies at Queen's University before he was called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1954. One of his first high-profile cases was to prosecute Bernadette Devlin, the fiery young independent MP for Mid-Ulster, after the Bogside riots in the late 1960s. She was convicted of inciting a riot in 1970 and spent four months in prison while still an MP.

Working for the authorities under the controversial Stormont government and remaining in Crown service when it was abolished, Hutton became experienced in the ways of civil servants and politicians. It was during these early days as a barrister that he was able to finely tune the strong Presbyterian work ethic that has never deserted him.

It was as a young QC that Hutton represented the soldiers at the first, and now discredited, Bloody Sunday inquiry of 1973, which inquired into the killings of 13 civilians by the British Army the previous year. In one of his interventions on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, he told an opposing barrister: "It is not for you or the jury to express such wide-ranging views, particularly when a most eminent judge has spent 20 days hearing evidence and come to a very different conclusion."

Six years later, he was appointed to the Belfast bench. By the mid 1970s, judges had joined politicians and police officers as legitimate targets for the terrorists. Five members of the judiciary were murdered while Hutton was in Belfast. But it was the death of Lord Justice Maurice Gibson, a fellow appeal court judge, that had the most profound affect on him. Gibson was killed with his wife, Cecily, when their car was blown up at Killeen, Co Down, in April 1987.

In 1982, Lord Hutton's close friend "Robbie" Lowry, whom he succeeded as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland in 1988, was ambushed by IRA gunmen as he arrived to give a lecture at Queen's University, Belfast. A year later, Irish police apprehended a gang waiting to kidnap his wife and daughter on their way to a horse show at Sligo.

Lady Lowry QC, a retired barrister, who married Robbie Lowry in 1994, says: "I think they were both very philosophical about the threats they faced. Robbie used to say that the police guards were only there to shoot the men who shot him. I think Brian had a similar view."

A senior Ulster barrister who now practises in London adds: "What you have to remember is that these were beleaguered men working under terrible pressure. They simply got used to driving around in armour-plated cars and having policemen greet them when they came home at night."

Not all barristers were prepared to give up their freedoms and higher earnings for a restricted life on the Belfast bench. It proved too much for one judge who, ordered to stay away from his weekly night class, resigned and returned to the bar.

Brian Hutton's top-target status among the IRA bombers was confirmed when his name was discovered on a hit-list of prominent members of the Belfast establishment. The Royal Ulster Constabulary's chilling find in 1996 included details of addresses, registration numbers and the daily movements of the suspected targets.

The name of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland appeared on the list only because of his high judicial status. There was no Republican suspicion that Hutton was more pro-establishment than any of the other judges.

In fact, Hutton had gained a reputation for strict independence and fairness while sitting on the much criticised judge-only Diplock courts that were convened to try alleged terrorists.

"Although these courts were controversial at the the time, Hutton acquitted a number of defendants in circumstances in which a jury would have sent them down without even looking at the evidence," says one Belfast solicitor who represented defendants at the Diplock courts.

Hutton's reputation for independence was reinforced when he dismissed Private Lee Clegg's appeal against conviction for murder, saying that there was not the "slightest suggestion in Pte Clegg's evidence that he thought the driver was a terrorist". Clegg's conviction was later quashed by Lord Hutton's successor.

His experience was greatly valued when he was promoted to the House of Lords in 1997 where he is known as the Irish law lord. "Hutton has a steely determination and conscientiousness that few other judges can match. He has a reputation for being very much his own man who will do what he thinks is right, come hell or high water," says a London-based Ulster barrister.

Last month, Lord Hutton showed that he was prepared to stand up to the Government of the day when he sided with other law lords opposed to Labour's plan to create a new Supreme Court. Two of his colleagues felt the issue too controversial to even express an opinion.

Lord Ackner, a retired law lord, describes Hutton as a judge who "understands the position of the judiciary in society and what the public thinks of them. Because of all his experience, he is very good with PR. I expect his report to be very sound."

Not since 1996 when Sir Richard Scott delivered his own damning report into the arms-to-Iraq scandal have the conclusions of a public inquiry been so eagerly anticipated. Hutton's investigation into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's suicide will run to more than 1,000 pages and is not expected to pull its punches. After 23 days of hearings, at which 70 witnesses gave unprecedented insight into the secretive workings of the Government and its security services, Lord Hutton has emerged as a fiercely independent arbiter of truth. The judge has pursued his quarry without fear or favour, setting new standards for the way judicial investigations are conducted.

Of the man himself, Lady Lowry says: "Brian is a very kind man with a joie de vivre and a sense of humour that doesn't come across on television."

He recently suffered a bereavement. In 2000, Mary Murland, his wife of 25 years, died of cancer. The couple, who had two daughters, married in 1975 when Hutton was 44.

In 2001, he married Lindy Nickols, at a quiet family wedding at Holly Trinity Church, Brompton. A widow, she brought him two stepsons and a stepdaughter. A few months later, he left his Pimlico home and moved in to her Chelsea house. Says a family friend: "I don't think Brian has made a cup of tea in his life so when Mary died his daughters had to look after him."

His cultural hinterland appears to be limited to his interests in the law, in which he is immersed. Lady Lowry says: "He doesn't play chess, ride or even take an interest in the garden. But he is very social." Last month, he was said to be on "sparkling form" at the Northern Ireland Bar's grand night dinner in Belfast.

Brian Hutton, the judge of the moment, is much in demand at London dinner parties, and the temptation is to always steer the conversation towards his investigation. To spare his embarrassment, new acquaintances are warned that he can't talk about his report until it is published.

This month, Lord Hutton announced his early retirement from the judicial committee of the House of Lords, adding to speculation that he is well ahead in his report. But the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has responsibility for the inquiry, said he would be spending the Christmas holiday finalising his conclusions.

Without the protection of his judicial office, friends fear he will be vulnerable to political attacks from those who might seek to undermine his report. Others believe that the judicial respect with which he is held would mean such a strategy would backfire.

Lord Hutton will stand down on 11 January, when he will still be 72, three years before the mandatory retirement age for law lords. But despite the headline cases and constant dangers in his long judicial career, he will always be remembered for one thing above all others - the inquiry that he peerlessly chaired into the tragic death of a senior civil servant.

Life story

Born: James Brian Edward Hutton, 29 June 1931, to James and Mabel Hutton.

Family: Married Mary Gillian Murland, in 1975 (died, 2000). Two daughters. Married Lindy Nickols, in 2001.

Education: Brackenber House Preparatory School, Belfast; Shrewsbury School, Shropshire; Balliol College, Oxford; Queen's University, Belfast.

Career: Called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1954. Legal adviser to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland in 1973. High Court judge, 1979, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland in 1988 and appointed to the judicial committee of

the House of Lords in 1997. To retire as a law lord on 11 January 2004.

Other duties: Chairman, Bourndary Commission for Northern Ireland, 1985-88. Visitor, University of Ulster, 1999 to present. Appointed chairman of the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, 18 July 2003.

He says: "I make it clear that it will be for me to decide as I think right within my terms of reference the matters which will be the subject of my investigation."

They say: "He feels happier following, rather than setting, precedents. He does not revel in doing the unexpected or hope to acquire a reputation for audacity." - Lord Hattersley

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