A Life of Crime: The Memoirs of a High Court Judge

Harry Ognall

£12.99, William Collins

At under 150 pages, this memoir from retired High Court judge Sir Harry Ognall is perhaps slimmer than it might have been. Sir Harry, after all, is the man who as QC for the Crown in the team that prosecuted Peter Sutcliffe demolished the lurid claim of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ that as a gravedigger he had been commanded by God to kill prostitutes.

Attorney general Sir Michael Havers was minded to accept pleas to manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility, thereby removing the need for a jury trial.

‘When Sutcliffe was in London he attacked nobody – is this God only a Yorkshire god?’ That is just one haymaker (and I paraphrase) from cross-examination of psychiatric experts that still surfaces at the bar as a model of the art. Sir Harry’s advice to the young advocate (‘there is no escape from the hard work of preparation’ and so on) could in fact usefully resonate with any aspiring professional.

Yet there is much everyday humour and anecdote too in this witty account of a legal career that began – and ended – in Leeds, where Ognall grew up. I enjoyed the tale of the eight QCs who wagered to shoehorn words of varying degrees of obscurity into questions put to a witness. The winner pocketed 50p through the skilful insertion of ‘rhododendron’ into a bribery and corruption case in Middlesbrough.

This very readable book also contains some outspoken and controversial comments on  subjects ranging from imprisonment to fusion of the professions. Recommended – though I would have liked more.

Paul Rogerson is editor-in-chief of the Gazette.