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Photo: The Telegraph

James Guthrie, impressive barrister whose work in the Privy Council included a string of landmark cases – obituary

  • News
  • 31 Jan 2023

Published in The Telegraph, 30 January 2023.

His practice took him to Caribbean and Commonwealth territories and he frequently represented prisoners facing execution on a pro bono basis.

James Guthrie, who has died aged 72, was one of the outstanding advocates of his generation and among the busiest and most authoritative practitioners in the Privy Council, undertaking appeals across the full spectrum of the Judicial Committee’s jurisdiction.

Calm, incisive and magisterial in court, he was also regarded as one of the more good-looking and debonair figures at the Bar, the inspiration for Antonia Fraser’s fictional hero Guthrie Carlisle in her Jemima Shore novels, that were begun while Guthrie was staying with the author in Scotland as a young man in the 1970s and later became a popular TV series.

James Dalglish Guthrie was born in London on February 21 1950, the son of Ronald Dalglish Guthrie, a successful businessman, and the younger brother (by 12 years) of the future Field Marshal Lord Guthrie.

Growing up in Knightsbridge, he was a year below King Charles at Hill House School, before going on to board at Mowden prep school in Sussex and then Harrow. He read Modern History at Worcester College, Oxford, a year of which was spent studying Renaissance art in Perugia, engendering a lifelong love of Italy.

As a handsome “deb’s delight”, in 1969 Guthrie was among the first group of male models at the Berkeley Dress Show, one of the institutions of the Season.

On his graduation, his father was keen for him to follow him into the City. James tried this briefly and unenthusiastically before falling back on reading for the Bar as a means of placating his father, and was as surprised as anyone when the law became his career.

Called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1975, he joined the chambers of Sir Godfray Le Quesne, who developed the set’s expertise in Privy Council work and was one of the last to uphold the tradition of wearing a black jacket, pinstripe trousers and homburg when going about the Temple.

Guthrie specialised in criminal, constitutional and public law cases, and soon gained a reputation as an exceptionally persuasive advocate, invariably unruffled and charming on his feet, with a razor-sharp intellect and sound judgment.

He took Silk in 1993 and later served as head of chambers at 3 Hare Court for nine years. He appeared in hundreds of petitions and appeals, including many landmark cases, instructed by governments, corporations and individuals. There was little he did not know about the work of the Privy Council – which in those days still sat in Downing Street– or the courts of the various jurisdictions from which its work came.

Guthrie’s wide-ranging practice meant that he was admitted as a barrister in a remarkable number of Caribbean and Commonwealth territories: the Turks and Caicos Islands, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Bermuda, Belize, Antigua, the Cayman Islands, Mauritius and the Bahamas.

He loved appearing in the courts of appeal of the various countries from which the Privy Council work came, embracing their different cultures and ways of life and making many friends overseas.

His worst moment, as he recalled, was in 1994, when his client Glen Ashby was hastily hanged in Trinidad minutes before news arrived that Guthrie had obtained a stay of execution from the Privy Council. Five years later, in 1999, he persuaded the Privy Council that the same country could not move to execute two prisoners on death row without taking account of their human-rights obligations.

He became a Recorder the same year, sitting on the Midland and Oxford circuit. In 2007, at Birmingham Crown Court, he fined Cadbury £1 million for knowingly selling chocolate contaminated with salmonella. In 2012 he was forced to abandon a heavyweight drug-smuggling trial at Birmingham Crown Court after a “drunk” juror fell asleep in court.

He meanwhile continued his practice in the Privy Council: among many other cases, he acted for the defendant alongside Edward Fitzgerald QC and the future Labour leader Keir Starmer in the leading case of R v Hughes (2002), which established that it was unconstitutional in St Lucia for the death penalty to be mandatory in murder cases.

In one of Guthrie’s later well-publicised cases as counsel, in 2016, he acted for the 74-year-old accountant Murray Pringle in his claim to the Scottish baronetcy of Stichill, originally granted by Charles II to his ancestor Robert Pringle and “male heirs of his body” in 1683.

Appearing before seven Supreme Court justices in the Privy Council following the death of the previous 10th baronet, Lieutenant General Sir Steuart Pringle, Guthrie said the claimant’s case rested on the assertion, based on DNA samples obtained some years earlier, that Sir Steuart’s father, the 9th baronet, born eight months after his parents’ marriage, was not in fact the biological son of the 8th baronet, and that therefore his younger brother, Murray Pringle’s father, should rightfully have succeeded to the baronetcy.

Guthrie told the judges that there had been “family gossip” and “tongues wagging”, but said he did not want to “make aspersions” against any baronet, or indeed any “ladies”. The issues in the case of heredity, succession and legitimacy were complicated by the passage of time, the admissibility of DNA evidence and the interplay of English and Scots law. But Guthrie’s arguments prevailed, with the Privy Council ruling unanimously that his client was entitled to inherit the title.

As a Bencher of the Inner Temple, Guthrie gave selflessly of his time to help young people aspiring to a career at the Bar. He was one of the architects of the Pupil Application Clearing House (PACH), precursor of the current Pupillage Gateway, and was himself a pupil supervisor for many years, including to the future Lord Justice Dingemans, and other current members of 3 Hare Court.

He took a particular interest in the work of the Death Penalty Project, a legal action NGO which works to protect the human rights of those facing the death penalty, of which he became a trustee in 2005. Much of his later practice was devoted to supporting their work, and he frequently represented prisoners facing execution on a pro bono basis.

Away from the law, Guthrie enjoyed shing on the Helmsdale, travel (especially to Italy) and photography. He was most recently in the news after contesting Bupa’s exorbitant increase in his health insurance premiums while he was being treated for cancer; his last premium was £163,000 a year.

James Guthrie married, in 1981, Lu Page-Roberts, a calligrapher, who survives him with their daughter and son.

James Guthrie, born February 21 1950, died December 26 2022

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