Rare foray into legal limelight

A quiet man is at the centre of the Fred West row, writes Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
Ever since medieval times, there has been someone in the English justice system to look after the interests of children, the mentally ill, prisoners and others who cannot defend their legal rights.

The Lord Chancellor's Department points to this history to explain the role of the Official Solicitor today.

Fully titled the Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court, he is appointed by the Lord Chancellor but acts independently of him. He is answerable to judges, not the Government, in providing the professional services of a solicitor to people who cannot represent themselves.

Peter Harris took up the post two years ago. He had been the Circuit Administrator - the senior law official equivalent to a government under- secretary - in the northern circuit for the previous seven years, before beating off open competition for his new job.

The decision to arrange an official Fred West biographer is said by some who know him to be a rare foray into the limelight.

"My reaction was one of surprise," said one. "I would not have associated him with doing anything rash, probably not even anything daring. If he had, he would certainly have thought about it long and hard."

A small, dapper man, 58-year-old Peter Harris was educated at Cirencester Grammar School before training at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. He left the Royal Navy in 1972 at the rank of Lieutenant Commander to embark on a new career in the law.

After two years as a practising barrister, he joined the Lord Chancellor's Department, where he worked his way up through a variety of administrative and legal posts.

When David Venables retired in 1993, Mr Harris was the first Official Solicitor to have to fight external competition for a post previously filled from within government legal ranks.