Obituary: Steve Smith, lawyer and author

Steve Smith, who has died at 72, was a larger-than-life South Yorkshire solicitor whose parallel career as an author earned him the soubriquet of the Rotherham Rumpole.

Stephen D Smith
Stephen D Smith

Steve Smith, who has died at 72, was a larger-than-life South Yorkshire solicitor whose parallel career as an author earned him the soubriquet of the Rotherham Rumpole.

In his 2003 book, Mobsters, Muggers and Me, he introduced a cast of characters whose names and crimes could have come straight from the pages of Dickens.

But he didn’t have to make any of it up, he insisted. As a defence solicitor he had by then spent 37 years in the theatre of the absurd, the next best thing to the stage career after which he still hankered.

His work involved the desperate, the repentant and the sometimes preposterous, those who regard prison as an occupational hazard. Mr Smith told their stories in and out of court.

The book sold more than 40,000 copies and he talked about it on TV and the radio and in after dinner speeches. But behind the theatricality lay the soul of a serious advocate.

Smithy, as he was widely known, was born in 1948 in Sheffield, the elder son of Ethel and Douglas. The family eventually moved to Barnsley where his brother, Neville, was born.

The brothers dreamed of starting a law practice together, but tragedy intervened when Neville and his new wife were killed in a traffic accident a few months after their wedding. They were both 24.

Steve had entered the legal profession at 16, as an office boy with his friend and local football companion, Les Walton, at firm in Barnsley.

By 1981 he had formed the partnership of Wilford Smith, with a single room and a desk, two borrowed chairs and one client.

They expanded exponentially and the practice had to move into other offices and later into the old Halifax Building Society on Westgate in Rotherham, employing more than 60 staff.

In 2017 Wilford Smith grew further and took offices at Meadowhall Business Park. But it was at the recently refurbished Westgate offices where events were being planned for later this year to celebrate the firm’s 40 years and Mr Smith’s 56th year in practice.

It was a career spent defending the rights of the underdog. Everyone had the right to a good defence, he insisted, especially if they had not done anything wrong. “If we all thought it was wrong to fight for the man in the street, we would be a very poor world indeed”, he said.

He became involved in several cases of alleged miscarriage of justice, two of which were subjects of the BBC series, Rough Justice, which re-investigated cases in which people had been sent to prison for murder when they insisted they were innocent.

In one case, a Hell’s Angels leader was freed from a life sentence after spending five years in jail because he refused to break a gang pledge never to help the police.

At the suggestion of the TV producer, Mr Smith wrote the story of the case in Hell Is Not For Angels, and in its book review, The Times described him as “the legal James Herriot”.

The book’s success fuelled his passion for writing, and he embarked upon what he called his “comedy” series with Boozers Ballcocks and Bail, which introduced him to the media and rekindled his long interest in showbusiness.

He was asked to write the biography of the South Yorkshire comedian and former footballer Charlie Williams, and met the singer Adam Faith, who wrote the foreword for one of his books.

He also became a producer, putting on theatre shows called “An Evening With...”, involving comedians talking about their careers.

He also worked tirelessly for charities. He was Patron of PACT, the children’s cancer charity in Sheffield, and helped to raise funds for the Western Park Cancer Hospital.

He went so far as to take part in a professional pantomime to gain publicity for the charity, and purchased tickets for members and children from the ward to come to see him “make people laugh in a series of silly costumes”. He recreated the spectacle at various events up and down the country, alongside friends like Jeremy Beadle and the Sheffield comedian, Tony Capstick. He was awarded an MBE in 2006.

In 2017, he successfully battled a rare form of cancer, returning to work and appearing in court before walking up the road to hospital for treatment.