By Chris Summers
From Rose West to REM guitarist Peter Buck, Richard Ferguson QC has represented some of the biggest names in court. As his 70th birthday looms, the defence lawyer who once had his home bombed, says he's not about to throw in his silk.
For the defence... Richard Ferguson QC
By the age of 70, if not before, the golf course tends to beckon those who have achieved the formidable status of Richard Ferguson QC. But in August, when this silk reaches his three score years and 10, he has no plans to retire to the fairway.
"I regard myself as at the top of my career. The experience you accumulate gives you a tremendous advantage when it comes to tactical decisions. It gives you the ability to know how best to judge how juries will react to certain things," he says.
When I meet him in his chambers in central London he is perusing the papers of a new client - a Pole facing trial at the Old Bailey accused of murdering a woman in a hotel room.
For someone who has represented the likes of Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, Guinness boss Ernest Saunders, property tycoon Nicholas Van Hoogstraten and boxer Terry Marsh, it is certainly not one of his most high-profile cases. But the cool, calm and charismatic Ulsterman will no doubt give it his all.
Born into Protestant farming stock, Richard Ferguson wanted to become a lawyer from an early age. His motivation? Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy.
"It's about a young naval cadet who is wrongly accused of stealing a money order (and is cleared because of the efforts of a brilliant lawyer). What has always driven me has been the desire to stand up for the little man and take on the powers of the state and, where possible, secure a verdict of not guilty
"Against that background, what I always wanted to do was to take on the unpopular client and to demonstrate that the popular conception (of the case) was wrong," he says.
He began by defending insurance companies in the civil courts in Northern Ireland but soon realised criminal law was more his brief.
During the early years of "The Troubles" he defended IRA men, loyalists and soldiers and for a time was a Unionist MP at Stormont. At one point a bomb badly damaged his home.
"The best compliment I can pay to myself is that nobody can say which side planted the bomb."
Mr Ferguson moved to London, where he eventually became one of the most respected defence barristers in the business. Among his most notorious clients was Rose West, who went on trial in the autumn of 1995 accused of helping her late husband Fred murder 10 girls in their home in Gloucester.
West was jailed for life but Mr Ferguson questions the legitimacy of her trial.
"There are certain cases where the enormity of the alleged crimes is such that it is virtually impossible to get a jury to look at the facts dispassionately. [She] did not get a fair trial because the media, in advance of the trial, had hyped up the situation to such an extent that no jury could have judged her case dispassionately.
He succeeded in getting boxer Terry Marsh (left) cleared of shooting promoter Frank Warren (right)
"Fred was dead and somebody had to be held responsible. If he'd been alive she might have been acquitted."
Many people outside of the law find it difficult to understand how a barrister can represent someone, such as Rose West, who is charged with horrendous crimes. Indeed, Mr Ferguson received hate mail during the West trial.
"You take it on the basis that your client maintains his or her innocence. It then becomes a professional task for you to utilise all your skills and experience to persuade a jury that this is the appropriate result," he says. "It would be idle to deny there isn't a certain amount of ego in the process."
So, would he enjoy representing Michael Jackson in his current trial? "Yes. I think it's a real battle between the credibility of his accusers and, on the other hand, the accusation that he is a paedophile."
Another client he would have liked to represent was Stephen Ward, the London osteopath who was linked to the Profumo scandal in the 1960s. Ward took an overdose of tablets and died three days after being found guilty of living on immoral earnings.
"He was the victim of a press campaign," says Mr Ferguson, "and was also used as a scapegoat by the establishment, which was trying to divert attention away from other things."
Occasionally barristers are "professionally embarrassed" when their clients tell them details which suggest they are guilty. In this event a barrister has to withdraw from a case but remains under a duty of confidentiality.
Mr Ferguson has had to do this only once.
"We do acknowledge cases where people have withdrawn through professional embarrassment. It does happen and it gives the lie to the perception that lawyers represent people who they know are guilty. That just does not happen."
So who has been his toughest adversary?
Onwards and onwards
"George Carman," he replies, unhesitatingly. "He was without doubt the best advocate I have ever come across."
Mr Ferguson had several clashes with the late legendary libel lawyer when they were on opposite sides during the Richard Branson lottery libel case.
"He kept doing things which I regarded as professionally inappropriate. The judge would mildly rebuke him and he would be back at it. You had to be on your toes with George... he was regarded by the judges as a little bit naughty but very engaging."
Another adversary he has great respect for is Brian Leveson, who successfully prosecuted Rose West. But unlike Mr Leveson, who is now a judge, Mr Ferguson says he could never sit on the bench.
"I don't have it in me to sit in judgement on other people, even if one takes refuge in the fact that guilt or innocence comes from someone else, the jurors. I would be uncomfortable with sending someone to prison."
But judges are "absolutely essential and I admire and respect people like Lord Bingham who personifies all that it best about justice... it's just not for me".
So Mr Ferguson, a devoted football fan and season ticket holder at Arsenal, will continue to prowl the corridors of the Old Bailey, defending the alleged criminals and standing up for justice.
"Unless and until one feels that my abilities are waning, I see no reason not to continue."