Death of a writ master

In his final interview, Peter Carter-Ruck, who died earlier this month, told Alex Wade how he came to regret his reputation as an aggressive litigator
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Some two months before his death at the age of 89 from cancer on 19 December, Peter Carter-Ruck was proving elusive. He had just taken a well-publicised position as a consultant with West End media firm M Law, whose clients included Lennox Lewis, Elle, Red and Hello! magazines, and this seemed a good opportunity to profile the man who was the last colossus from the days when London was the libel capital of the world, whose name was revered and feared in equal measure.

But Carter-Ruck did not want to play ball. It took many days of cajoling, sending polite e-mails and reassuring a friend whom we had in common that I was not intent upon writing a hatchet job before he agreed to speak to me. Why, though, would I risk writing anything negative? This was the man whose steely glare had launched a thousand libel writs.

But then Carter-Ruck made his name not merely by virtue of his notorious tenacity and aggressive tactics, but also by thinking of everything.

Carter-Ruck cut a formidable figure when I was a trainee at his firm, where I worked for just under three-and-a-half years. He occupied a lavish office commensurate both with his status as a senior partner and with his client list which included Lord Beaverbrook, Cecil Parkinson, James Goldsmith, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Lord Rothermere, Stewart Granger, the King of Malaysia and various members of the Churchill family. He spoke with a husky voice, had cold grey eyes and seemed taller than he actually was thanks to a trim build and an aura of unyielding tirelessness. His energy was boundless and he would regularly run up the five flights of stairs at the firm's Holborn offices while younger colleagues took the lift. He was a man who exuded capability.

I was intimidated by Carter-Ruck from day one. But Nigel Tait, a protégé of Carter-Ruck and partner at the firm that Carter-Ruck left amid some acrimony in 1998, always found him, "very approachable. He was very easy-going and even though he was a household name he would talk to anyone."

Though he was able to be greatly charming, to some his presence aroused only fear. A media lawyer whom I spoke to said that his letters literally, "made editors cry," and another, when I asked if he would comment on Carter-Ruck for my profile, wrote: "He is a cunt."

I spoke to Carter-Ruck three or four times for this interview. Despite his initial reluctance he was courteous and helpful. He told me proudly of how he had built a stone croft in the Scottish Highlands from scratch, "with the help of an excellent architect who was unable to get any work at the time, but was prepared to do the work with some of my ocean-racing crew and wife Ann." Carter-Ruck loved the croft, to which he would regularly retreat, so too ocean racing, though latterly he felt that ocean racing was, "far more professional than amateur, that's why I prefer ocean cruising these days." He was a past Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club.

Asked which was his most memorable case, Carter-Ruck said: "I've had so many that it's difficult to pick one." Pressed further, he said his most cherished result was obtaining a posthumous apology for Winston Churchill, despite the basic tenet of libel law that the dead cannot be libelled. "I vividly remember the excitement of the achievement in the case," he said, and I asked whether his joining M Law was a case of picking up the baton again, a return to the cut and thrust of media law but his reply was prickly: "I've continued working as a libel lawyer since my retirement from the firm. This is not a case of 'picking up the baton' but the continuing resumption of my practice as a specialist lawyer."

I was curious about his libel reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a book which Carter-Ruck describes in his memoirs as, "a beautifully written account, poignant and tragic," and wondered if literary history might be illumined by his recollections of Nabokov. But it turned out he never met Nabokov, who, "wouldn't accept a single alteration to his text. I had to accept and advise on that basis."

When I sent this piece to him, asking that he read it for factual accuracy only (he had first said he wouldn't talk to me until he had approved the copy for my profile), Carter-Ruck had just a couple of quibbles. One of these was my description of his voice as "husky". Having sent the copy, I felt a little compromised, but libel-free - and perhaps this as much as anything is Carter-Ruck's legacy. Those who write for a living know all too well the dread of an action for libel, and copy is changed every day to avoid legal risk. There are those who say this is a good thing, and those who think - in a world of instantaneous communication where the identity of a miscreant celebrity or politician will be known the world over in seconds - that we should all grow thicker skins.

Ironically, Carter-Ruck started life as a defendant libel lawyer, and regretted the way he became perceived as a claimant lawyer. He told me this one night in mid-November, ringing well past midnight and launching into an anxious, breathless speech without pausing to ask where I was or what I was doing. It was obvious that he was not well, that he had suddenly slipped into being a shadow of his former self.

I learnt recently that he talked often about the profile in the weeks before he died. He had told me he was "excited" about it. Even the week before he died, I was contacted to ask when the piece would be appearing. A fighter to the end, Carter-Ruck was clinging on, and somewhere in his once razor-sharp mind was the thought that, once again, he would be the centrepiece of an article in a national newspaper. It struck me that, for all that he elicited fear, for all that he may be ruthless and cunning, for all that his bills were huge and his critics were legion, for all that he was a complex, driven man with good sides and bad, Peter Carter-Ruck was, when all was said and done, only human.