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Page last updated at 16:35 GMT, Friday, 14 September 2007 17:35 UK

Safe pair of hands for McCanns

By Clive Coleman
BBC Radio 4's Law in Action

Michael Caplan
Michael Caplan defended General Pinochet
Named as suspects in Madeleine McCann's disappearance, her parents are being advised by Michael Caplan QC, who successfully fought efforts to extradite General Pinochet from the UK.

As Kate and Gerry McCann headed back to their Leicestershire home for the first time since their daughter Madeleine disappeared, they were visited by a man few recognised. Michael Caplan QC is one of the UK's top criminal solicitors. Joshua Rozenberg, the Daily Telegraph's legal editor, has followed his career.

"When he went to see the McCanns last Sunday, he went in through the front door. But it was very clear to me that none of the photographers outside recognised him. As he was wearing a dark suit, they probably thought he was a police officer. He is not the sort of man who struts the stage and attracts attention to himself."

Neither Mr Caplan nor Kingsley Napley, the firm in which he's a partner, are strangers to controversy. One of the founders of the firm, Sir David Napley, was solicitor to the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe when he was tried for conspiracy to murder.

The McCanns arrive in the UK
The McCanns returned to their home on Sunday
One of Mr Caplan's early cases was to represent the captain of the dredger Bowbelle which collided with the Marchioness on the Thames in 1989, killing 51 people. Captain Henderson was tried twice but never convicted of any wrongdoing. But it was in 1998 that Mr Caplan was really catapulted into the limelight. The former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was arrested in the UK on a warrant from Spain requesting his extradition to face murder charges.

"His lawyers didn't look for someone on the same side politically as Pinochet - instead they went for the most reliable, straight-forward, unflamboyant lawyer in London. They picked Michael Caplan," says Mr Rozenberg.

Landmark case

The Pinochet case was always going to be colossal. Its ramifications would be felt around the world. At its heart was the issue of whether a former head of state could be extradited to stand trial for crimes committed whilst in power, or whether they were immune.

You might describe him as a quiet crusader - he'd never shouted from the rooftops, but always made the point very clearly when opportunities arose
Mark Clough

Tyrants and despots around the world would have to carefully reconsider their travel plans if General Pinochet lost. Barrister Julian Knowles, who also acted for the General, believes that was the "most important extradition case there's ever been and possibly ever will be".

"It was an opportunity to make legal history and he would have been aware of those benefits for him and the firm - the financial benefits," says Mr Knowles.

"But this was undoubtedly a case which offered every lawyer involved an opportunity to leave footprints, and that would've been his primary motivation."

But what were the particular skills needed to represent General Pinochet; what strengths did Michael Caplan bring to bear?

"The approach he takes to legal problems is to think about them from every angle much as a chess player does - how will this move impact on future moves?" says Mr Knowles.


But running an intensely high-profile case is a vast undertaking. Representing the McCanns may well prove to be as huge a task. Cases like these involve far more than just preparing for court. Another member of the Pinochet team, Clive Nicholls QC, says Mr Caplan was "concerned with dealing with Pinochet himself, and his wife".

Protests as the courts decide Pinochet's fate
Feelings ran high
"He had to manage and control the Chilean part of the senator's team," says Mr Nicholls.

"Equally he had to keep control of those who wanted to be associated - such as Margaret Thatcher - so he kept in contact with her. He's very good at dealing with these people and keeping them at the proper distance."

As the case progressed, anger and emotion ran high. At the centre of it all Mr Caplan had to address the hungry press and face down the taunts of General Pinochet's political opponents. At times, as Mr Knowles remembers, it got pretty hairy.

"The tension was intense, with a banner outside court reading 'Michael Caplan is a torturer'. Not many solicitors had that accusation levelled against them."

But in 2000 the then UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw, released General Pinochet from house arrest in Britain after he was declared unfit to stand extradition proceedings.

Mr Caplan saw General Pinochet on to the plane taking him back to Santiago. Such was the trust he'd inspired that Lady Thatcher left specific instructions that only Mr Caplan be permitted to give her old friend an inscribed plate, once he was safely on board.

First among equals

So why is a solicitor also a QC, a title historically the preserve of barristers? When solicitors were granted the right to appear as advocates in the higher courts in the early 1990s, Mr Caplan was quick to qualify as what's known as a solicitor advocate.

He has a gift to explain to a client why he's doing something in a way they can understand
Mark Clough
In 2002 he was the first solicitor from a criminal law background to be made a QC. And one of the bees in his bonnet was to ensure that, now they were on the same footing, solicitor advocates should wear the same wig and gown in court as their barrister colleagues.

"He played a leading role in consultation with government to make it clear that parity of dress in court is essential for justice. You might describe him as a quiet crusader. He'd never shouted from the rooftops, but always made the point very clearly when opportunities arose," says Mark Clough, a friend and fellow solicitor QC.

Mr Caplan is a man used to winning. But even after a victory in court, this is a lawyer who really isn't one to go out and party. Mr Clough, a long-time lunch partner, says he's "quite abstemious" and "restrained" and is a vegetarian.

"That's his general approach to life - very measured. Not that he doesn't have a sense of humour - he has a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile. He's a very easy, approachable person."

And this extends to how he treats his clients. "He has a gift to explain to a client why he's doing something in a way they can understand."

McCann case

That's no doubt one of the qualities that has appealed to the McCanns. But Mr Caplan also has particular expertise that could prove invaluable to them.

"If it's decided in Portugal they should be tried, they will want advice as to fighting extradition or returning voluntarily," says Julian Knowles. The other area of law Mr Caplan specialises in is "mutual assistance" - the process where one country seeks the assistance of another in a criminal investigation. "The McCanns will want to know if the Portuguese police can turn up at their house and search it. Or can they get the English police to search it."

Pinochet arrives in Chile
Pinochet boarded in a wheelchair, and left it with a stick
Madeleine's disappearance has been reported around the globe. But in Chile, it's Mr Caplan, known for representing General Pinochet, who made the headlines when it was reported this week that he's been hired for the case.

"Because Pinochet is a controversial figure, so is Michael Caplan. People in Chile remember the main argument for the defence was his poor state of health. And the first image of Pinochet in Chile was when he got out the plane in a wheelchair then stood up and walked," says the BBC's Andrea Ernandez in Santiago.

"So today some people think Michael Caplan is an excellent lawyer and Madeleine's parents are in good hands. Others who ask why they chose someone who defended Pinochet, a military ruler who was accused of crimes against humanity."

But Mr Caplan has said that a lawyer has a duty to a client, just as a surgeon has to a patient. Clients don't want to be judged by their lawyers. What they want is ability and a safe pair of hands. In Michael Caplan, Kate and Gerry McCann have got just that.


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