Anthony Scrivener QC; 100% pure silk

a radical barrister with a traditional respect for money
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Only a decade ago the public at large, their knowledge of law gleaned from Rumpole and school Dickens, would have neither known nor much cared who was arguing for whom in the courts. That barristers threw off the creaky old-world image and can now be as well-known as some of their clients can be traced back to the activities of one of their number in particular, Anthony Scrivener QC, who for the past fortnight has been defending "millionaire socialist" Owen Oyston against rape charges at Liverpool Crown Court.

Equally at home in a circuit court, the world of high finance in the Far East and in the television studio, it was the down-to-earth, blunt- talking but immensely successful Scrivener who, as Bar chairman in 1991, finally did for barristers what Lord Taylor, the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, has done for the judiciary.

Selling the barristers' new look as ruthlessly and effectively as he does a case in court, Scrivener railed against the white male legal establishment, backed barristers in shirt-sleeves rather than horse-hair wigs and, with suggestions such as making solicitors judges, thought the unthinkable. The Lord Chancellor's Department looked on anxiously, wondering if he would go too far.

How anti-establishment can he really claim to be? Well, he is one of the few members of the Bar's radical wing to be an avowed republican. He has publicly attacked the Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, and Lord Howe over the Scott inquiry. Try your luck before DTI inspectors or the Serious Fraud Office or even the police before you complain of unfair procedure, was his advice to Lord Howe. He has urged more non-white and women judges and a better system for choosing them, and as Bar chairman, pushed through measures to make barristers' chambers aim to recruit 5 per cent of their lawyers from ethnic minorities. He has attacked the police for being too prone to extract confessions, and judges for being too trusting of police evidence. He tries to ensure that a quarter of his work is legal aid and is on the pro bono panel that takes Jamaican capital murder appeals to the Privy Council.

Scrivener remains a traditionalist in one significant way: in an adversarial system of justice, employed Crown Prosecution Service lawyers who have prepared cases should not, he believes, also advocate them in jury trials in the Crown Courts. But even his views on this point still leave him opposing current government policy.

With his fabulous earnings and long-time Labour Party membership, Scrivener can be counted as a millionaire socialist if anyone can. Some Bar-watchers put him as a mere half-million-a-year man, but this is probably a hopeless under-estimate. If he cheerily denies media reports of securing a pounds 1m brief in some massive Hong Kong fraud case, that is likely to be because the pounds 1m estimate is too low, not too high.

Now 60, and as seemingly energetic as ever, he will embark on another highly lucrative mission to Hong Kong in September. He will never be a (vastly less well-paid) High Court judge, having let it be known after his tenure as Bar chairman that he did not want judicial office.

A tall, loping figure, Scrivener has been dubbed the legal world's Michael Heseltine, though with less flamboyant hair. Politically - though not in terms of energy, persistence and, sometimes, audacity - the comparison ends there. While less active in Labour circles during the Blair era than in Neil Kinnock's (when he acted as Labour's legal talking head on television), he has been a party member for years, canvassing and helping with speeches.

The party has benefited financially, too. He gave pounds 2,000 at the last election and he and his second wife, Ying Hui Tan, a barrister and law reporter, joined the round of fund-raising activities inspired by Ken Follett, the author, and his wife, Barbara. Scrivener himself was once nearly elected a local councillor but it was a mistake. He had agreed to make up the numbers of candidates in Harrow one year when Labour unexpectedly achieved a 26 per cent swing.

Then, after the 1992 election, he was the subject of intense media speculation that he would be made a Labour peer and could even - during one of Lord Chancellor-in-waiting Lord Irvine's more dormant periods - become shadow Lord Chancellor. But Scrivener was never approached and the peerage under discussion went to the Welsh Labour activist Gareth Williams, Scrivener's successor as the 1992 Bar chairman. He would have relished refusing to use his title outside the precincts of the House of Lords, but his long- term ambitions have never been in politics.

Tony Scrivener's Labour Party sympathies and his energetic will to make good in a highly precarious profession that has always produced more casualties than successes spring from an ordered small-business background. His father ran an ironmonger's shop in Canterbury, Kent.

An only child, the young Tony steadfastly worked his way through grammar school and University College London and was called to the Bar in 1958. After a spell lecturing in law in Ghana, he got stuck into the Bar, and became a QC in 1975. He has a son and a daughter, both in their twenties, by his Hungarian first wife, Iren Becze. His son, Zoltan, seemed set to follow in his footsteps, securing a tenancy to practice in a barristers' chambers, but gave it up to work as a journalist and help Amnesty International in Hungary. His daughter, Zsuzsa, or Primrose as he calls her, is a nurse.

The ease with which he seemed to break through the traditional class barrier at the Bar and the secret ingredient of his phenomenal success is not easy to fathom. But the fact that he believes his son might be "too nice" to be a barrister may be a clue. It is clear he had a steely determination never to let the system get him down.

To this end, his tactic has been to seek to subvert it, refusing to wear a waistcoat, pin-striped trousers or a bowler hat, the Bar's cheeky chappie when tradition still ruled the day. To pay his way through pupillage he washed dishes and did other menial jobs. In the meantime, he developed the killer instinct. While immensely friendly, he has never been "clubbable" in the crusty, barristerish sense, and though a lover of parties, he is rarely seen in the traditional barristers' haunts. By Bar standards he is a loner.

If the knocks on the way ever did get him down, he would have been the last person to show it. He never acquired a plummy accent, with the result, perhaps, that juries find him easy to relate to. Like all successful barristers with some very satisfied clients, he has made enemies. His spiky, rottweiler style of doing things has got under some skins. Persistent and bolshie when necessary, he is prepared to push things to the limit. From his point of view, it's a case of leaving no stone unturned in the interests of your client.

And his clients have widely different interests. His list includes Richard Branson, Guinness defendant Jack Lyons, paratrooper Lee Clegg, Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, Winston Silcott, the Cyprus-based fugitive Asil Nadir and Dame Shirley Porter. It is in this politically delicate territory that he and some of the Bar's radicals part company.

"He was one of the few chairmen of the Bar to have given the Bar some sort of profile and standing with the public, dragging it out of its introverted, navel-studying, insular and conservative ways, and giving it a public face," says one. "But I find it difficult to understand how he comes to be defending in cases like Shirley Porter's." It is certainly true that he attacked John Magill, the Westminster council district auditor, with all the relish and gusto one has come to expect. Scrivener responds to that kind of criticism by invoking the so-called "cab rank" rule that stops appropriately qualified barristers turning down cases they don't like the look of. A number of barristers are adept at circumventing the rule: by pleading "non-availability", for example, or having a discreet chat with their clerks. But Scrivener does not avoid legal aid cases, which earn barristers perhaps a quarter of the fees of privately paying cases.

Whether legal aid is too low and private fees too high is another story - but Scrivener's standard of living has yet to be dented by the efforts of some chambers to urge clients to "shop around". But if appearing for Dame Shirley and Asil Nadir upsets some political sensibilities it should be remembered that he has also acted both for and against surcharged Labour councillors. Ken Livingstone, the left-wing MP, former GLC leader, and perhaps an acid test, had the misfortune of having Scrivener against him twice - but still instructed him once himself. He has acted for striking miners and has even appeared for Militant.

But, Scrivener is a barrister first and last. The culture promised by a Blair government represents the politics that the middle-ground Scrivener has always aspired to. He applies the same pragmatic attitude to that as he does to law. "What is wrong with being a millionaire?" he would ask. What is needed is more of them, not fewer; a bigger cake, that can be better shared, is how he puts it.

Comments