OBITUARY : Lord Taylor of Gosforth

James Morton
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:57

With the Conservative government in the 1990s seemingly intent on producing annual, often ill-thought, legislation, the criminal justice system was fortunate to have Peter Taylor as the Lord Chief Justice from 1992 to mid-1996, intent, even in his last months in the post, on pointing out to the Home Secretary what he perceived to be the error of his ways. Over the years the office of Lord Chief Justice has from time to time been perceived to be an extended arm of the administration. That could never be said of the all too short tenure of Lord Taylor of Gosforth.

Immediately after his appointment in February 1992 he called a press conference, something unheard of in the 11-year tenure of Lord Lane, his predecessor, saying he would like people to feel that British justice is the best in the world. "I believe it is despite the blemishes which have appeared recently, but I am sure there is a scope for improving it."

He presided over a series of appeals in which it was apparent that things had, indeed, not gone well in the investigation and prosecution of some defendants. They included the brothers Paul and Wayne Darvell, who had been wrongly convicted of the murder of a sex-shop manageress and to whom he expressed "deep regret on behalf of the court and their public" over their ordeal. In other cases it became apparent that crucial evidence had, for one reason or another, not been disclosed to the defence.

Whilst at the Bar Taylor had been junior counsel in two such cases: that of Stephen Kisko, convicted of the murder and rape of a young girl, and Judith Ward, convicted of the murder of British soldiers. Indeed in the subsequent appeal of Judith Ward which led to the quashing of her conviction, when questions were raised about the conduct of the original prosecution, Taylor volunteered to give evidence.

It was also clear from the start of his tenure that he was prepared to step into the political arena. Giving the Dimbleby Lecture in 1992 he called for the appointment of more judges, saying the growing backlog of cases would be a national disgrace if it was allowed to continue.

Born in Newcastle in 1930, Peter Murray Taylor was the son of Herman Louis Taylor, a doctor of Central European origin, and Raie Helena Taylor, nee Shockett. He was educated at Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and after leaving school had the opportunity of a place at both Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. Undecided, that summer he attended the Sherborne Summer Music School, a precursor of the Dartington School. Later he said that, having heard real musicians such as the clarinettist Gervaise de Peyer, and deciding that he himself would never be a virtuoso pianist, he decided to stick to law.

Taylor was an Exhibitioner at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he excelled at sport, obtaining a Rugby Blue. He was called to the Bar as a member of Inner Temple, and joined the North Eastern circuit in 1954.

During his career he prosecuted both Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party leader, and, from his native North-East, John Poulson, the corrupt architect. He was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1967 and became a Bencher in 1975. He was Vice-Chairman of the Bar from 1978 to 1979, and Chairman the following year. He was also Recorder of Huddersfield from 1969 to 1970 and Teesside from 1970 to 1971, being the Deputy Chairman of Northumberland Quarter Sessions in that year. He became a Recorder of the Crown Court in 1972 and was appointed to the High Court in 1980 before becoming a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1988.

He became known to the general public when he chaired the inquiry into the Hillsborough Football Club disaster of 1989 - which had, in turn, followed the fire at Bradford City's ground - making far-reaching suggestions for public safety whilst rejecting the calls from Margaret Thatcher for the introduction of identity cards for football fans.

Many who achieve high office acquire a self-importance to accompany it. It was not the case with Taylor. Once, when he said that he could not be pompous because he had three daughters, one had interrupted him to say that he could still be pompous but they could tell him when he was being so. He had been Peter at the Bar and Peter he remained as Lord Chief Justice. Nevertheless, when it was necessary he required protocol to be observed, chastising a former Law Society President who had failed to make the traditional courtesy call on his appointment.

He was not in favour of televising trials, believing that only the ones with entertainment value would be chosen, and he considered that wigs and possibly gowns could be done away with without reducing the status of the courts. He gave permission for women barristers to wear trousers in court.

Taylor clashed repeatedly with Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, over the funding of the legal aid system, describing 1993 proposals which were widely seen as cutbacks as "an abdication of responsibility to a large section of those for whom the legal aid system was devised".

His tenure was also marked with a series of clashes with Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who set out a law-and-order stall. Speaking in May 1996 shortly before his retirement Lord Taylor said of the policies:

In the last three years, almost everything has been changed or thrown overboard in the criminal justice system. When you are going to legislate, you should do it less hectically and with a little more preparation and not have to introduce amendments because you had not got them ready before.

After Howard's proposals to limit judges' discretion by introducing mandatory sentences for repeat offenders he launched into a swingeing attack defending the independence of the judiciary. Before that Taylor had defended the traditional right of the defendant to silence, a battle ultimately lost, and criticised the delay in setting up a body to review miscarriages of justice, something recommended by the 1993 Royal Commission headed by Viscount Runciman of Doxford.

Despite Taylor's generally forward-looking policies, his critics pointed out that he defended the traditional secretive judicial appointment system and some felt that he did not do as much as he could to press for more women or members of ethnic minorities on the bench. He was prepared, however, to defend his views before a wide audience, causing a frisson when he agreed to appear on the BBC television programme Question Time.

It may be that his own Jewish background - for in the past there was a good deal of anti-Semitism at the Bar - led him to believe that an appointment could always be obtained by the most talented. The qualities in a judge, he told Brian Masters in the Independent, shortly after his appointment as Lord Chief Justice, were: "Patience, courtesy, the ability to understand other people's problems, experience of the courts and of evaluating evidence, knowledge of the law, all of which should lead to a good judgement and a safe pair of hands."

His wife, Irene, whom he married in 1956, died of cancer in 1995, and on 2 May 1996 it was announced that he too was suffering from the disease and would only undertake administrative duties until the appointment of his successor. He had been in office a bare four years, but in that period he had played a more conspicuous part in making the judiciary more accessible to the public than many of his predecessors who had served twice and three times as long.

During his time as Lord Chief Justice he gave piano recitals in aid of legal charities, sometimes accompanying the soprano Jennifer Smith, as well as playing at the Christmas party in aid of the Garrick Club's staff fund. It is told of him that, announced by the toastmaster to speak at a City dinner, much to the delight of the audience, he went over to the grand piano in the room, played two Scarlatti sonatas, bowed and resumed his place without saying a word.

He said of his playing that he would only do charity concerts so that if something went wrong no one could ask for his money back. No one would ask for the return of his salary for the time he was the Lord Chief Justice. In court, in the House of Lords and at the keyboard he had a safe pair of hands.

Peter Murray Taylor, judge: born Newcastle upon Tyne 1 May 1930; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1954, Bencher 1975; QC 1967; Recorder of Huddersfield 1969-70, Teesside 1970-71; a Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-80; Leader, North Eastern Circuit 1975-80, Presiding Judge 1984-88; Chairman of the Bar 1979-80; a Judge of the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division 1980-88; Kt 1980; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1988-92; PC 1988; Chairman, Inquiry into Hillsborough Football Club Disaster 1989; President, Inns of Court Council 1990-92; Controller, Royal Opera House Development Land Trust 1990-96; Chairman, Trinity College of Music 1991-92; Lord Chief Justice of England 1992-96; created 1992 Baron Taylor of Gosforth; married 1956 Irene Harris (died 1995; one son, three daughters); died Guildford, Surrey 28 April 1997.

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