Obituary: Peter Carter-Ruck

Independent, Monday December 22, 2003

As the man who was synonymous with libel law in Britain, Peter Carter-Ruck was a formidable figure whose reputation for tenacity, cunning and aggressive tactics made him as many enemies as it did friends. Regularly pilloried in Private Eye, where he was immortalised as ‘Peter Carter-*uck,’ he also feted by the great and the good and, by the end of a career in the law spanning six decades, could proudly boast that he had acted for four Prime Ministers. If other lawyers, and Fleet Street editors, were more inclined to moan with dismay at the mention of his name, he inspired tremendous loyalty in the many clients he successfully represented.

Carter-Ruck’s unwavering, lifelong energy saw him build up a practice that became the immediate port of call for politicians and celebrities as soon as they felt that their reputations had been impugned. Often, he would work quietly behind the scenes and ensure that a career-destroying allegation remained out of print, his client’s integrity unquestioned. Or he would mercilessly pursue an offending newspaper or magazine through the courts, until justice, under the draconian libel laws of England and Wales, was done. En route few prisoners were taken, and huge costs were incurred. Carter-Ruck became as well known for his final bills as for his results.

Peter Carter-Ruck was born on 26 February 1914, to a father whom he described, in his memoirs, as “Victorian in outlook and in his concept of discipline” and a mother who was “soft and generous in nature.” This, he wrote, was “an ideal combination.” Carter-Ruck’s early life, however, was characterised more by a steely, rigorous regime than by softness, and for all that he could be charming as a man, effortlessly mixing with anyone he met, there were those who wished that the softness of his mother had been passed on rather more than the Victorian rigour.

He attended St Edwards public school in Oxford, a place where boys were men and weakness of any kind was despised. Early on at the school, he was caned for a minor misdemeanour, an experience that left him “black and blue for some weeks” but which he believed had been good for him. At home, if he deserved it, his father would send him to bed and feed him nothing but bread and water. Typically, Carter-Ruck thanked him for this regime, writing that it had helped prepare him for the army and once saying in an interview with The Oldie that violent criminals should be sentenced to hard labour.

When he left St Edwards, at 17, he contemplated accountancy as a profession but his father arranged for him to meet the senior partner of Westminster law firm Lee Bolton & Lee. A lunchtime interview went well, with Carter-Ruck giving a surprising answer to the question ‘what would you do if you came out of lunch to find a policeman standing over your car, which you had parked in a non-parking area?’ The aspiring articled clerk told them he would go home and report that his car had been stolen. This creative and yet less than strictly legalistic answer perhaps typified the man, as much as the “passionate sense of justice” that he also recounted in his memoirs, which arose over an incident with a haddock. He was six and haddock was on the menu for Sunday breakfast. But his parents announced that he would not be having any, “because of something I was wrongly accused of having done.” Outraged, the young Carter-Ruck took hold of the haddock by its tail, and ran off with it.

His job with Lee Bolton secure, Carter-Ruck opted to go to Germany for three months rather than start university, a decision he later regarded as a mistake. In Germany he witnessed, in the 1932, growing signs of Nazism, and attended a rally at which Hitler spoke in Freiburg, where, alone with one other Englishman he had befriended, he did not give a Nazi salute. He wrote that he was “deeply affected by the increasing fanaticism and violence on the streets.” Returning from Germany, Carter-Ruck qualified as a solicitor with Lee Bolton before joining Oswald Hickson, where he was soon to become head of its litigation department.

But the outbreak of the Second World War interrupted his legal career. Carter-Ruck served with distinction as an artilleryman during the Second World War, joining as a gunner and obtaining his commission in 1940. By the time he left in 1944, he had become a gunnery captain, and, during four days’ leave in 1940, married his lifelong partner, Ann. The couple appeared nigh-on inseparable, Ann at his side for every social occasion, but in March this year she died. They had been married for 62 years, and Carter-Ruck was shattered by her death.

As with many driven men, there were rumours of affairs. One certainly occurred with his secretary of some years ago, May Richards. Carter-Ruck ultimately fell out with Richards over his handling of a case on behalf of Derek Jameson, formerly editor of The Daily Express. Jameson was highly critical of Carter-Ruck’s failure to show him an opinion from counsel, which suggested that commencing proceedings for libel against the BBC was extremely risky. Richards was on the verge of reporting Carter-Ruck to the Law Society, but one of his senior partners negotiated the withdrawal of her complaint. Carter-Ruck himself was by this time – the mid-eighties – a former Law Society Council member and probably the most eminent libel lawyer in the country.

Ironically, for a man who became notorious as a claimant lawyer par excellence, Carter-Ruck’s first major case, returning to Oswald Hickson after the war, was for the Bolton Evening News. The newspaper was sued by Labour MP Bessie Braddock over allegations that she had danced a jig in Parliament, “a nauseating degradation of democratic government,” as the paper out it. Carter-Ruck successfully defended Braddock’s writ for libel on the basis that the allegations were fair comment, and went on to build up a thriving defendant practice including many national newsapers.

A string of other high-profile cases followed, and before long Carter-Ruck had amassed a client list that included Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Weidenfeld, who came to him with a book that he felt might cause a few problems, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Carter-Ruck failed to persuade Nabokov to change a single word of what he believed were four problematic sentences, but nevertheless evolved a complicated ruse by which the book would be published with barely any notice by the government. Lolita did not encounter any legal complaint.

Carter-Ruck remained at Oswald Hickson until 1981, when his partners told him that it was time he retired. Instead, he moved on and set up the firm that still today bears his name, not without falling out with his former colleagues and engaging in protracted fallout litigation. His daughter, solicitor Julie Scott-Bayfield, had also worked for him and became embroiled in a dispute with her father that saw the couple not speak for years, a state of affairs that must have deeply affected Carter-Ruck, whose other child, Brian, had died in a transport accident. However, his eponymous new firm went on to become the premier defamation practice in the country, and, in the heyday of libel in the early 1990s, seemed to be acting for just about anyone who was suing for libel. Neil and Christine Hamilton, Norman Lamont, William Roache, Lord Rothermere, Cecil Parkinson, James Goldsmith: all were clients, and it seemed that Carter-Ruck, a fit and trim man even in his eighties, would go on forever.

But another rupture was on the horizon. Carter-Ruck fell out with some of his partners over the terms of his retirement, and was contemplating suing them when the death of his wife occurred. By now, he had joined Essex law firm Pellys as a consultant, becoming the country’s oldest practising solicitor, but though still advising on some libel matters appeared to devote most of his time to the Stop Stanstead Expansion Campaign, for whose legal committee he was chairman. Carter-Ruck’s home was near Pellys, in Bishop’s Stortford, and he also owned a flat in The Strand and a highland croft, which he had built from scratch. One of his cherished possessions was a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with the number plate L1BEL, but it seemed that Carter-Ruck – though he could content himself with having attained an eminence among solicitors shared only, in the latter half of the twentieth century, by Lord Goodman and Sir David Napley – was no longer in the public eye as a libel lawyer.

Earlier this year, though, Carter-Ruck re-entered the media fray as a consultant with West End firm M-Law, a firm which numbers Lennox Lewis and Hello! among its clients. One matter he advised on was on behalf of a journalist, for whom M Law obtained damages for libel from The Daily Mail. For a man who would often point out that he had started life as a defendant libel lawyer and was a friend of Fleet Street, this was some satisfaction.

Carter-Ruck was a keen yachtsman all his life, owning boats that he would christen Fair Judgment. He was a member of the Law Society Yacht Club, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Garrick. He was the founder-governor of Shiplake College at Henley, a past president of The Media Society and a member of the Council of Justice. He is survived by his daughter Julie Scott-Bayfield, a solicitor.