Gilbert Gray QC

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ONE of Britain’s most eminent barristers, Gilbert Gray QC, has died at the age of 82, after a long and distinguished career.

The son of a North Yorkshire magistrate, Mr Gray rose to the top of his profession renowned as a charismatic and formidable advocate, involved in many high profile cases including defending the Black Panther, Donald Neilson.

An unrivalled raconteur, wit and in demand as an after-dinner speaker, few knew he was also an accomplished artist.

Tributes were paid to him this week at courts around the North Eastern Circuit, of which he was leader between 1984 to 1987, and where he had entertained many robing rooms with his stories.

Away from court he was devoted to his family, farming and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution which grew from his love of sailing.

Born in 1928 the son of a butcher, Robert Gray and his wife Elizabeth, he was educated at Scarborough Boys’ High School and said later he was introduced to the richness of the English language at his local Salvation Army Hall and listening to Methodist preachers.

He went to Leeds University after National Service in the Army, initially reading theology before switching to the law. He was president of the Student Union in his final year and was then called to the Bar in 1953.

Mr Gray became a Queen’s Counsel in 1971 developing not only a national but international reputation in civil as well as criminal law equally on demand in Hong Kong and Singapore as Yorkshire. He appeared in public inquiries for the Selby coalfield, the Leeds airport expansion, Bridlington Marina and in 1987 into the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry in Zeebrugge.

His court appearances included representing architect John Poulson at his appeal, the Spycatcher case in Australia, when the British Government tried to block the autobiography of former MI5 assistant director Peter Wright, the Arms-to-Iraq trial involving senior executives of Matrix Churchill and the Brink’s-Mat bullion robbery trial.

He was involved in hundreds of murder trials and once told a young barrister who arrived for his first such case resplendent in his best pinstripe suit “always wear black for murder trials my boy, always wear black”.

Gilly, as he was known to his friends, said there was always room for the theatrical in court and would often quote poetry or Shakespeare.

“If lawyers have no sense of fun, they become remote and lacking in sympathy,” he said.

Mr Justice Openshaw, one of the current presiding judges on the North Eastern Circuit said: “Each generation of advocates has its stars and in ours Gilbert Gray was one of the superstars.”

“It is often said that speeches seldom ever win cases, I do not think Gilbert Gray subscribed to that particular theory, it seems to me his speeches often won the day.”

Mr Gray also sat as a crown court Recorder between 1972-1998 often at the Old Bailey and was proud to have spent 40 years as a Silk without retiring. He was head of York Chambers at his death.

Away from the courtroom Mr Gray stood unsuccessfully for Parliament for the Liberal Party in 1955 and 1959 but appeared successfully as a panellist on Radio 4’s Any Questions.

For relaxation he loved nothing more than to go sailing and taught his family how to navigate back into Scarborough Harbour by aiming for the Spa and the painted white gable end of their grandmother’s home.

“He never forgave Scarborough Council for not renewing their contract with Max Jaffa,” said his elder son Robin.

He was an keen supporter of the RNLI both at Scarborough, where he was station president, and nationally, becoming an honorary life vice-president.

“He was an amazing character, a wonderful orator who could deliver humorous but moving speeches and was always in demand to speak at lifeboat naming ceremonies and other special RNLI occasions,” said Colin Lawson, Scarborough RNLI lifeboat operations manager.

A keen farmer, Mr Gray built his own “castle” at Lingholme Court Farm at Lebberston where, on seeing several tractors in action one day, he complained there were too many “Panzer divisions and not enough infantry”, sending his son off to Cumbria to buy sheep.

That farm was later sold when Mr Gray moved south but he always kept a flat in York and loved to visit his family at Murk Head Farm, Harwood Dale near Scarborough where they plan to plant a wood in his memory.

He is survived by his wife Dilys, sons Robin and Toby, daughters Miranda and Charlotte and 11 grandchildren.

His funeral was private yesterday at his local Sussex church but his ashes will be scattered at a later date from the Scarborough lifeboat over the South Bay.