William Hugh Griffiths, Lord Griffiths

* 26-09-1923     30-05-2015

Obituaries & biographies, 91 Years

Lord Griffiths, the former Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, who has died aged 91, could have had a successful career as a cricketer, but Glamorgan’s loss was British justice’s gain.

He was a good-natured, reforming arbiter, renowned for taking a robust and independent line from fellow judges, and his appointment to chair the Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct in 1990 was welcomed by the Law Society.

The committee played a key role in determining the impact of Lord Mackay’s reforms giving solicitors rights of audience in the higher courts. It was an open secret that, because Griffiths firmly supported these reforms, he was not the favoured candidate of the Bar Council. He concluded that the reforms should go ahead but that solicitors should be subject to the same codes of conduct on advocacy as barristers.

Decades earlier, in 1971, Griffiths had entered the limelight for granting bail, pending appeal, to the three editors of Oz magazine. The three had been jailed by Judge Michael Argyle for obscenity following publication of their “Schoolkids’ Issue”, which contained a cartoon depicting Rupert the Bear – trousers around his ankles – deflowering Gypsy Granny. Griffiths described the sentences – ranging from nine to 15 months – as “considerably more severe” than was usual for this type of offence.

An all-round sportsman, Griffiths was a double Cambridge Blue at cricket and golf, bowled fast for Glamorgan during their championship-winning season of 1948, and became captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews in 1993.

His presidency of the MCC in 1990 was propitiously timed in view of the legal dispute over the delayed completion of the Compton and Edrich stands. But a far more contentious issue soon came his way when the England batswoman Rachael (now Baroness) Heyhoe Flint was put up for membership by Tim Rice, seconded by Brian Johnston and Dennis Amiss.

Although the club rules did not explicitly disqualify women from membership, said Griffiths, they were written on the assumption that the MCC was a man’s club and therefore members should vote on the issue. Privately, Griffiths may well have been in favour of reform, but the result did not surprise many . Unlimited eligibility for women members was rejected out of hand while the proposal for limited “honorary” membership won a small majority, but not the necessary two-thirds for a rule change.

In 1993 Griffiths headed an MCC working party set up to examine the state of English cricket – a direct result of members’ fury at what they considered to be David Gower’s inexplicable omission from the English side to tour India. Griffiths’s report proposed the abolition of the Cricket Council and the amalgamation of the Test and County Cricket Board with the National Cricket Association.

The son of an eminent surgeon, William Hugh Griffiths was born on September 26 1923 and educated at Charterhouse during the early years of the Second World War. In 1942, aged 18, he was commissioned in the Welsh Guards and two years later he was awarded the MC. He was serving as a lieutenant in the 2nd Armoured Recce Battalion when, on the afternoon of September 8 1944, at the beginning of the battle for the Belgian town of Hechtel, four German Panther tanks were reported to be approaching the British position from the west.

Griffiths immediately volunteered to investigate and set off unaccompanied in his tank. Crossing a road, he came under fire from one of the Panthers, but the shot missed and he was able to make his way to a wood beside the road, where he lay in wait until the enemy tank came within range. He then fired three shots and destroyed it. Returning to the road, he saw the other three Panthers which soon made off. He decided, however, to wait under cover in the neighbourhood and subsequently managed to destroy two enemy transport vehicles.

The citation to his MC noted that by “taking on single-handed the Panther tank” there was no doubt that Griffiths had broken up “what might have been a serious attack on our left flank, an attack which might have menaced our entire position at Hechtel and altered the decision of the battle”.

Following demobilisation in 1946 Griffiths went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, to read Law. He subsequently read for the Bar and was called at the Inner Temple in 1949.

Personal injury work formed the bulk of Griffiths’ early practice; in one case he acted for an English woman who had injured her tongue in a car crash and acquired a peculiar “Welsh” accent. During the 1960s he appeared in two cases now well-known to Tort law students. In Chadwick v British Railways Board he won damages from British Railways for the widow of a window cleaner whose personality and health suffered following his rescue work at the scene of the 1957 Lewisham train disaster.

Griffiths first came to wider public attention, though, in 1968 when chairing the inquiry into the partial collapse of Ronan Point in Canning Town, in which five people died and 17 were injured. Griffiths’s report established what had been long-suspected – that system-built high-rises could be dangerous , and suggested, in particular, that attention be directed to “continuity of jointing” between floor panels and external load-bearing walls.

As a Recorder of Margate from 1962 to 1964, and of Cambridge from 1964 until 1970, Griffiths was eager to give defendants another chance rather than send them to prison, and tended to favour probation even in serious cases such as breaking and entering. He was made a Judge of the High Court, Queen’s Bench Division, in 1971.

In 1973 Griffiths was appointed to serve as one of three judges on the Heath government’s ill-fated Industrial Relations Tribunal (NIRC) which dealt with redundancy appeals and wrangles between trade unions and employers. His tenure was short-lived:Michael Foot, as Employment Secretary, promptly closed the court down when Labour returned to power in 1974.

Returning to the High Court, Griffiths sat frequently at the Old Bailey where his caseload included terrorism trials. At the trial of the assassin of Iraq’s deposed prime minister, General Abdul-Razzaq Al-Naif , the defendant’s plea when the charges were first put to him was the ultimate in ambiguity: “Not guilty. It is my job. I am very proud of it.” In another case he jailed a Palestinian terrorist for life for a grenade attack on an El Al flight crew.

Following promotion to the Court of Appeal in 1980, Griffiths refused to lift an injunction obtained by the Moors murderess Myra Hindley, who wished to prevent the Sun newspaper from publishing extracts of her plea to the Parole Board. Griffiths – who had served as vice-chairman of the board from 1976 to 1977 – said he could think of nothing more damaging to the parole system than for prisoners to fear that their confidential submissions would be leaked to the press. In 1983 he delivered the judgment blowing the cover of the Guardian’s Foreign Office mole, Sarah Tisdall, who had given the newspaper the imminent date of arrival of cruise missiles on Greenham Common. It was essential that this “untrustworthy” official should be traced and removed, said Griffiths; nobody knew what other documents might be copied, and to whom they might be revealed. Tisdall was later jailed for six months.

Shortly before becoming a Law Lord in 1985, Griffiths presided at the Thyssen divorce case, telling the Brazilian-born Baroness, Denise – who chewed gum continuously in court, that she had no prospect of receiving a significantly higher divorce settlement just because “her husband may turn out to have £1,000 million rather than 400 million”. She would continue to live “in the most luxurious style beyond the imaginations of ordinary mortals,” said Griffiths, who was keen not to waste unnecessary court time on the case.

In the House of Lords, he contributed to the unanimous refusal to grant a permanent newspaper ban on articles about the Spycatcher memoirs of the former MI5 officer Peter Wright. The balance “came down firmly in favour of the public interest in freedom of speech and a free press” Griffiths explained. He also suggested it might be better to let Spycatcher be published because it was “such a boring book”.

He was chairman of the Security Commission from 1985 to 1992. Following the Cyprus spy trial in which British servicemen were alleged to have been blackmailed by the Russians after drug-taking and homosexual orgies, the commission under Griffiths recommended that very young servicemen and women should not be sent to sensitive postings overseas.

One of his final acts as a Law Lord was to reprieve two prisoners on death row in Jamaica, on the basis that to execute them having kept them waiting for 14 years would breach the country’s constitution. The death row phenomenon must “not become an established part of our jurisprudence,” Griffiths said. The judgment had far-reaching implications for other condemned prisoners.

After years of involvement in medical negligence cases – where negligence is notoriously difficult for plaintiffs to prove – Griffiths became a firm supporter of a no-fault scheme that would compensate victims of medical mishaps whether negligence could be shown or not.

Griffiths was a member of the Advisory panel on Penal Reform from 1967 to 1970, and a member of the Lord Chancellor’s Law Reform Committee from 1976 until 1993. His other memberships and fellowships included the Canadian Bar Association, the American Institute of Judicial Administration, and the American College of Trial Lawyers.

Hugh Griffiths was knighted in 1971 and became a Privy Councillor in 1980. Following his retirement in 1993 he continued to work as an arbitrator and mediator in international and domestic commercial and other disputes. He celebrated his 90th birthday with a dance in the Inner Temple.

He married Evelyn Krefting in 1949. She died in 1998. In 2000 he married Baroness Brigstocke, former High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School. She died in 2004. In 2009 he married Greta Fenston, who survives him with three daughters and a son from his first marriage and three stepsons and two stepdaughters.

Lord Griffiths, born September 26 1923, died May 30 2015

Source: The Telegraph

Published on: 01-06-2015