Lord Williams of Mostyn

Leader of the House of Lords and a reforming Attorney General

Wednesday 16 October 2013 05:48

Gareth Wyn Williams, lawyer and politician: born 5 February 1941; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1965, Bencher 1991; QC 1978; a Recorder 1978-2003; member of the Bar Council 1986-92, chairman 1992; Leader, Wales and Chester Circuit 1987-89; created 1992 Baron Williams of Mostyn; Pro-Chancellor, University of Wales 1994; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office 1998-99; PC 1999; Attorney General 1999-2001; Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 2001-03; married 1962 Pauline Clarke (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1994 Veena Russell (one daughter); died Evenlode, Gloucestershire 20 September 2003.

There are few records of law officers who have gone on to successful careers in the political mainstream. But then, there have been few in any profession who possessed the combination of assets which were found in Gareth Williams, Leader of the House of Lords since 2001 and former Attorney General. A scintillating analytical mind, a fluency in debate and a facility for quick repartee combined with a relaxed charm and a capacity for establishing an easy relationship with judges, juries, political audiences and colleagues, to make him a master of persuasion.

The son of a schoolmaster in Mostyn, the Flintshire town whose name he was later to take as part of his title, Williams was born, as he cheerfully related, in a taxi between Mostyn and Prestatyn. He attended the local primary school, and after taking the 11-plus, attended Rhyl Grammar School. While still at school he decided on a career in law, and in 1958 he arrived with an open scholarship in history at Queens' College, Cambridge.

His academic talents quickly became apparent. In 1962, at the age of 21, he was awarded the University Prize in Jurisprudence, followed two years later by a First in Law. However, the cost in those days of qualifying as a barrister, and surviving the early years in practice, compelled him to take a teaching post for a year, until in 1965 he was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn, of which he later became a Bencher.

He acquired a busy practice on the Wales and Chester circuit, and earned a reputation for presenting an argument with an economy of words, and spiced with a dry wit which was never to leave him. In 1978 he took silk, and moved to London. In the same year, he became a Recorder, and from 1986 sat from time to time as a deputy High Court judge. As a silk, he acquired a formidable reputation in defamation actions. In 1995 he appeared for Graeme Souness, the international footballer, in his action against The People newspaper, and won a notable victory over George Carman QC, who was then probably the most successful libel advocate in Britain.

But Williams found time to participate in the politics of his profession. In 1986 his popularity on circuit resulted in his election to the Bar Council, and in 1987 he became Leader of his Circuit.

He acquired a reputation as a radical, unimpressed by the mere antiquity of any institution. When, in 1992, he became chairman of the Bar, he condemned the use of legal jargon when the same concept could be stated in ordinary language. He attacked outdated restrictions, and argued powerfully for law reform.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Labour Party, and in 1992 it came as no surprise when he was created a life peer. His talents quickly earned him respect in the House of Lords, and in 1993 he was appointed to the front bench as a Northern Ireland spokesman. His interest in Northern Ireland affairs never deserted him, and he continued to participate in debates on Northern Ireland despite his other responsibilities.

With Labour's election victory in 1997, Williams became a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, and was charged with special responsibilities for constitutional issues. He formed a valuable working relationship with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. In 1998 Williams was promoted within the Home Office to Minister of State.

In the following year, on the retirement of John Morris, later to became Lord Morris of Aberavon, Williams became Attorney General. He was the first holder of that office for many year who was not a member of the Commons, and the experiment proved successful enough to justify its continuance with the present Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, after Williams moved to other duties. As Attorney General, he was able to initiate some of the reforms for which he had previously argued. He established the inquiry under Sir Iain Glidewell into the prosecution system, and continued to support such experiments as the according to advocates in the Crown Prosecution Service of leave to spend periods in private practice, in order to avoid the mindset which sometimes afflicts those whose experience is confined to prosecution.

It is a tribute to Williams's energy that he combined the duties of Attorney General with the Deputy Leadership of the House of Lords. In June 2001, on the retirement of Baroness Jay, he became Leader of the Lords, to which office was subsequently added the Lord Presidency of the Council. Leading the Lords was a major challenge, since the Government was confronted with a heavy legislative programme, and the Upper Chamber was a notoriously difficult hurdle for any Bill to surmount on its journey to the statute book.

The reforms which had led to substantial changes in the composition of the House had given rise to an atmosphere more confrontational than had been usual in the past, and Williams's patience was sometimes tested. But his capacity for defusing a tense situation with a cheerful flash of wit, and his ability to expose pomposity, proved of great value to the Government. In private, his ability to establish friendly relationships in all parts of the House was a further catalyst, and enabled him to initiate a number of procedural improvements.

Despite the sometimes frenetic demands of political life, Williams was active as a public figure in less confrontational circles. He was a Fellow of the University College of Wales, an Honorary Professor of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University College of North Wales, President of the Welsh College of Music and Drama and, since 1995, Pro-Chancellor of the University of Wales. And he was active as a trustee of the NSPCC.

His unexpected death on Saturday, at the height of his powers, has deprived the Government of an invaluable champion, and we will never know what further achievements the future may have held for him.

Archer of Sandwell

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments