This breezy account of life as a barrister dealing with some of the most important cases in recent British history is enjoyable and addictive. Even now it’s rare to get an insider’s view, let alone one that is entertaining but still offers food for thought.
In Chapter sixteen of this memoir, Clegg talks about how to win over the jury. The key is in the barrister telling a credible story and making it sound interesting – rather like writing a good book? Maybe all those years in court were good preparation for this memoir, not just for source material but a certain style and delivery that keeps the reader glued to the page. Clegg has a very easy style and his memoir reads like a dream.
This is a mix of courtroom drama, issues within the judicial system and a personal account of life as a barrister. Under the Wig is lively, often amusing and on one occasion hilarious as Clegg demonstrates judges do have a sense of humour. However, for the most part this memoir is a more serious affair, at least in the courtroom, there are a baker’s dozen murder cases here. All of which have unique factors about them (which is why they are selected) that demonstrate different aspects of the law; pleading not guilty v guilty, acquittal v conviction, unusual v ordinary, sane v insanity, and miscarriage of justice v justice. Over a long and varied career, Clegg has participated in over a hundred murder cases, appeals, retrials and even war crimes hearings. Each is given a chapter, each providing a rundown of the case from details of the murder to trial and verdict, each illustrating some aspect criminal law. For the most part these are famous cases but instead of the half stories you might have picked up in the press, TV, or social media, Clegg provides an insider account of what actually happened. While he does enjoy a victory in the court, this memoir is in no way triumphalist or exploitative. It’s informative and thought provoking. Clegg has written Under the Wig for the layman. He comes across as personable and very human.
There are chapters that deal with thorny issues such as changes to legal aid and: “How can you defend a man like that?” Something that Clegg must have been asked a thousand times, it’s well dealt with in the introduction. He also deals with changing science, the role of judges, how courts work, bribery and corruption, private work, the infamous phone hacking trials and fraud. Again with a light touch, there is no pin point analysis of the system but this isn’t an academic study or an exposé, it’s an open door to a closed world. There are warnings for the future of English justice descriptions of police incompetence and mistakes but Clegg clearly loves, and believes in, our judicial system.
This is also his personal story and so it’s not just about his role in court but his background (how Perry Mason gave him the impetus for a career in the law?) and how he made his way in the legal profession from studying law at Bristol to becoming a judge. Mildly self-deprecating but genuinely sincere, it’s an interesting aspect of the book and it dovetails with the case studies very nicely. We get to understand his motivation.
Despite the open nature of our judicial system, much of what goes on isn’t seen by the public. This memoir helps to put that right. We can see the working and read about what happens when the most serious crime is committed.
Clegg opens with the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. The case involved suspect Colin Stagg, a profiler, a honey trap and a near miscarriage of justice, and it may have given the real killer a chance to commit another murder before being caught. It’s a staggering read but we get closure as the case which sees the real killer in gaol is also here (three gruesome murders are eventually solved). Other cases include the Chillenden Murders, Clegg’s client is Michael Stone, defending war crimes perpetrators Sawoniuk and Serefinowicz, the murder of Jill Dando defending Barry George, the murder of Joanna Yates defending Vincent Tabak and a capital case in Jamaica (Marlon Moodie).
This memoir is for anyone with an interest in criminal law and the way our judicial system works. Under the Wig doesn’t have the brilliance of Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Studies, but that may not be a fair comparison, I think their intentions are very different. Under the Wig would be an interesting reading group pick.
Paul Burke 4/4
Under the Wig by William Clegg QC
Quercus 9781529401240 pbk May 2019