After 47 years 'Gorgeous' George Carman QC, the tiny giant of British libel, rests his case

By Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 18 April 2009 01:05

"She danced on the graves of her husband's victims. She is a clever, confident, cold and calculating woman. She has sought to excite sympathy at every possible opportunity in the witness box. The truth and Sonia do not make good bed-fellows."

"She danced on the graves of her husband's victims. She is a clever, confident, cold and calculating woman. She has sought to excite sympathy at every possible opportunity in the witness box. The truth and Sonia do not make good bed-fellows."

The words George Carman QC chose to describe Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, who was suing for libel, were among the more colourful of his career, though they were in no way atypical.

But such linguistic flourishes - at least in the setting of a law court - may be a thing of the past.

Mr Carman, 70, perhaps the most famous barrister of his generation, reluctantly announced yesterday that he was retiring after nearly half a century of legal battles, devastating cross-examinations and theatrical soundbites.

Mr Carman said he was retiring on the advice of his doctors who said he needed treatment for "little local difficulties" on which he declined to elaborate. He said he felt he had no real option.

"There was an element of choice. I could carry on but I did not want to expose any client to the prospect that I could not give 100 per cent of myself," he said from his house in Wimbledon, south-west London.

"It is very sad, really. I have spent 47 years at the Bar in a profession I enjoy. It is like losing something irreplaceable in your life but it happens to us all."

Mr Carman, the Oxford-educated son of a Blackpool furniture salesman, has been one of Britain's most successful QCs. Though he refuses to discuss fees, he has reportedly been earning up to £1m a year, largely through high-profile libel cases that have earned him the nicknames Gorgeous George and Killer Carman.

Three times married and three times divorced, Mr Carman first came to public prominence with the defence of the former Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who was acquitted in 1979 of attempting to murder his gay lover, Norman Scott.

After that case, he took on a number of other high-profile criminal cases including his successful defence of Ken Dodd, the comedian who was cleared of tax evasion charges.

But though Mr Carman has worked variously as a criminal and personal-injuries lawyer, it is the world of libel, the world of reputations ruined and characters impugned, which he has made his own.

While standing no taller than 5ft 3in, his reputation is such that many litigants have been put off suing simply by the receipt of a solicitor's letter informing that he has been retained to defend the action. Each so-called "Carman letter" earns the QC a reported £5,000.

"I don't write the letters myself - that is not the convention," he said. "But it may be that a solicitor has used my name in such circumstances."

Mr Carman entered the world of libel in the 1990s, famously defending The Sun against an action brought by Gillian Taylforth, an actress in the EastEnders soap opera at the time, over reports that she had been caught in flagrante with her fiancé while parked in a slipway off the A1.

Another high-profile case involved his defence of The Guardian and Granada television against an action brought by Jonathan Aitken - an action that would eventually lead to the former minister's downfall. It was the QC's production of last-minute documents relating to Aitken's stay at the Paris Ritz that highlighted suspicions that the politician had lied under oath.

His last major victory was at the end of last year when he represented Mohamed Al Fayed in a case in which Neil Hamilton, a former Tory minister, failed to clear his name for accepting payment from the Harrods owner.

Even Mr Hamilton was among those to pay tribute to the barrister yesterday. "I salute him as a worthy adversary," he said. "One has got to admit he is a phenomenon of his time and the Bar will be the poorer for his retirement. His reputation is certainly well-deserved." The chain-smoking Mr Carman later said he was touched by the comments.

His most satisfying case, he said, was his 1983 acquittal of Leonard Arthur, a paediatrician who was charged with killing a three-day-old Down's syndrome baby. The doctor had allowed the baby to die of pneumonia as humanely as possible by deciding on non-treatment. Mr Carman later said he thought the doctor was an honourable man.

The legal world reacted with surprise and genuine sadness at the news of Mr Carman's retirement. Though there had been rumours of possible retirement earlier in the year, he had recently replaced Cherie Booth QC at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square after his own chambers dissolved and she moved to a new set.

"I think he is the advocate's advocate," said James Price QC, who worked alongside Mr Carman on a number of high-profile cases including Aitken. "There is certainly no better jury advocate that I have seen in this generation. He is highly intelligent and he has an extraordinary ability to concentrate during a trial.

Anthony Scrivener QC described Mr Carman as "simply the best cross-examiner in the business". He added: "I think of him as a wise owl devouring some little rodent."

Mr Carman said he planned to spend his retirement writing a book that would include "some memoirs and a look at the future of the legal profession".

He said he had a number of concerns about the Bar, especially the possible encroachment on the independence of defence barristers and the pressure to reduce the fees in publicly funded work - a move he said could lead to a failure to recruit enough "good young talent.

"Don't have change if change means you dilute the quality of justice," he said. "It costs and it has to be paid for."