LEADING ARTICLE: The legacy of Fred West

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It's not often that a civil servant makes someone's fortune. But author Geoffrey Wansell is probably going to become a very wealthy man, thanks to the efforts of the Official Solicitor, Peter Harris. Mr Harris has brokered the sale to publishers Hodder Headline of Frederick West's own jail autobiography and of 13 volumes of police transcripts of interviews with West, all for use in Mr Wansell's account of the West case. Whatever Mr Wansell's many talents, the presence of this material alone ensures that his book will be the clear leader in a packed post-trial field. He and his publishers must be feeling very pleased with themselves.

But should the rest of us share this warm glow? That certainly isn't our first reaction. In the middle of a trial that has been characterised by a constant flow of questions to witnesses about the sale of their stories to newspapers and others, this deal doesn't feel right. Did it have to happen now? And is it really the task of someone employed by the public to anoint authors with such remunerative blessings?

Mr Harris's office argues that he is just doing what the courts appointed him to do. As Official Solicitor, he represents (on our behalf) those who cannot represent themselves - particularly minors. The younger members of the West family needed someone to act for them. In getting the best possible deal for their father's estate (which includes his papers and the transcripts), Mr Harris is fulfilling this "best friend" role.

Such explanations fail to reassure. In the first place the sale itself is suspect. We must not prejudge the outcome of the Rosemary West trial, but can we really countenance the possibility that the murder of several young women and girls should eventually benefit the estate of their killer, while the victims' families may be left with nothing? If criminals are not allowed to benefit from their crimes, then logically neither should their families.

If the legal answer to the above question is yes, the family must inherit, then there is something wrong with the law. At any event it was surely a mistake for the sale to be pushed through while the evidence is still being heard in court. Quite apart from the unseemliness of hawking the West transcripts before any culpability is determined - thus bracketing together the dispensation of justice and the sale of stories - there was no need to hold the auction now. If the timing was aimed at maximising the returns, then those involved should be ashamed of themselves.