The Lawrence Report: The Inquiry Team - Judge whose sympathy surprised all

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The Independent Online
A 72-YEAR-OLD Highland chieftain was perhaps not the obvious choice to lead the journey through Britain's inner cities at the head of the most important inquiry in our race relations history. Certainly, Michael Mansfield QC and Imran Khan, the lawyers for the family of Stephen Lawrence, did not think so.

When Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, the 27th chief of Clan Macpherson, was appointed to head the inquiry into Stephen's murder, they objected. The retired judge, they believed, was a deeply conservative, Establishment man, with little sympathy for black people.

Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, were so scared by newspaper reports citing Sir William's high rates of refusal of leave for judicial review in immigration cases that the whole inquiry was almost undermined.

But Sir William, who was once described by his colleague Lord Justice Leggatt as "the most complete man I know", has adapted to the requirements of his task in a manner that has won widespread admiration from those who have closely followed the 18-month inquiry.

Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, said that Sir William's own views about race relations had been turned on their head by the inquiry. "I think he has undergone a sea-change," Mr Herbert said. "He started the inquiry as someone who was fairly ignorant about race issues. He has now become someone who has developed an appreciation of the depth of racism in our society."

Sir William was described by one lawyer last week as "a solid man, without brilliancy, profundity or humour, yet has a perfect honesty, rare lucidity of thought and utterance, and a perspicacity worth an army of spies".

With a studied inscrutability, Sir William gave few indications of what he thought of the extraordinary testimony he sat through. But on one rare occasion when he did lose patience, he clearly demonstrated that the police officers under scrutiny could expect no special favour.

That moment came during the evidence of Detective Chief Superintendent Roderick Barker, a former head of the Flying Squad, who was called in several months after Stephen's death in April 1993 to carry out an internal police review of the unsuccessful investigation.

Det Ch Supt Barker's review contained no strong criticism of the murder squad and was used as the central pillar of the Metropolitan Police's contention that the force had done everything it could to catch Stephen's killers.

Sir William dramatically cut short his evidence, saying he regarded the review as "indefensible" and adding: "His [Det Ch Supt Barker's] value as a witness and his credibility in vital matters has already been much undermined for reasons which will be perfectly obvious for anyone here today."

Sir William has also retained the sort of firm grip on the proceedings that one might expect of someone who had a reputation as a "strong judge" during 13 years on the bench and who was once a lieutenant colonel in charge of the 21st Special Air Service territorials.

On the numerous occasions when shouts from the public gallery threatened to drown out the hearings, Sir William patiently and politely asked spectators to refrain from voicing their feelings.

The violent clashes outside the inquiry building in Elephant and Castle, south London, could hardly have been what Sir William had in mind when he retired from the Royal Courts of Justice in 1996.

He went back to the Macpherson ancestral home at Newton Castle, Perthshire, looking forward to spending more time playing golf and going fishing, saying that he might "sit occasionally to hear civil cases".

The advisers: Bishop John Sentamu (left), Thomas Cook and Richard Stone

SIR WILLIAM Macpherson and his three advisers have very different backgrounds.

John Mugabi Sentamu, a Ugandan-born bishop; Thomas Cook, former West Yorkshire police chief; Richard Stone, a Jewish general practitioner; and Sir William, retired judge and Highland chief, worked together to create one of the most vital documents in the history of Britain's race relations.

Dr Sentamu, 49, was educated in Kampala and Cambridge. He served as a Ugandan High Court judge before he joined the church.

He worked at HM Remand Centre, Latchmere House, in Surrey then became a vicar in south London. He was canon at Southwark Cathedral before moving to the bishopric of Stepney.

Mr Cook joined the police in 1964 and is a former secretary of the race and community relations sub-committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers and a member of its crime committee.

Mr Stone, 61, has a practice in west London and is chairman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.

He was instrumental in uncovering the "Homes-for-Votes" scandal in Westminster, which led to the fall of Lady Porter. Homeless families had been been placed in asbestos-contaminated flats.