Richard Hartley’s powers of persuasion were so great that in one renowned defamation case over alleged match-fixing, his opponents resorted to the unusual manoeuvre of challenging the jury’s verdict.
The action had been brought by the footballer Bruce Grobbelaar, who accused the Sun of libelling him when it reported he had taken bribes to influence results. The Liverpool goalkeeper had previously been acquitted of conspiracy to fix matches in a criminal trial. Thanks to the advocacy of Hartley, who has died of cancer aged 90, a high court jury awarded Grobbelaar £85,000 in damages.
The newspaper appealed. For the first time in an English libel action a jury verdict was set aside on the grounds that it was perverse. Delivering judgment in 2001, Lord Justice Simon Brown observed: “The result clearly represented a forensic triumph for Mr Hartley … however, it represented also an affront to justice.”
The case eventually reached the House of Lords, where by a majority the appeal court decision was overturned and Grobbelaar was again found to have been libelled by the match-fixing claims. This time he was awarded just £1 in damages. The Law Lords ruled that although it had been proved that Grobbelaar accepted bribes, the newspaper had failed to show he let in goals on purpose.
The case exemplified Hartley’s skill in addressing juries. Over a legal career spanning 50 years, he appeared in high-profile defamation cases involving, among others, Harold Wilson, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Maxwell, the jockey Kieren Fallon, Neil Hamilton, David Mellor and Esther Rantzen. He often argued against George Carman QC, the lionised courtroom champion over whom he frequently triumphed.
Hartley’s heyday coincided with the high-water mark of libel business in the courts, when cases were frequently before juries and competition between mass circulation papers was at its fiercest. Changes to the law since then have ensured most claims are now settled before trial and any hearings are usually before a judge sitting alone.
Born in West Byfleet, Surrey, Richard was the son of Arthur Hartley, a pioneering engineer who as a first world war pilot developed synchronising mechanisms enabling machine guns to fire between the propellers of fighter aircraft. Arthur subsequently became chief engineer to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and in the second world war developed Pluto (the Pipe Line Under the Ocean), which transported oil across the Channel after D-day. The younger Hartley kept a fragment of the pipeline on his chambers desk.
His mother, Nina (nee Hodgson), was Arthur’s second wife. Richard was their younger son; his brother, John, later became a solicitor. The boys were brought up near Woking, Surrey; Richard attended Marlborough college, in Wiltshire, and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Originally intending to study French, he switched to law because he enjoyed going up to London for dinners. After university he completed national service with the Intelligence Corps in Cyprus, rising to the rank of lance corporal – an experience he credited with making him a “normal person”.
Hartley joined One Brick Court chambers in 1956, which had specialised in defamation cases since the 1880s. His first pupil master was Douglas Lowe QC, a double Olympic gold medal-winner at 800 metres, who made him run to court in the morning.
He started off with divorce cases to gain legal experience, but soon moved on to libel. A keen gambler, he was expert at judging odds, whether at the racetrack, playing bridge or in the courtroom.
One story told by Hartley was that he frequented Esmeralda’s Barn, a Soho club run by the Kray family where he enjoyed playing the card game chemin de fer in the 1960s. A chambers clerk once put through a call, remarking: “There’s a Mr Charles Kray on the line.” Hartley was informed that someone he had introduced had failed to settle his bill; would he pay? He refused.
With the appearance of a benign bishop, and in possession of a mellifluous voice, he was, as one colleague recalled, “king of the sharp retort”. He succeeded in cases others considered unwinnable. With a keenly developed sense of what the ordinary person would find to be unfair, he was remarkably effective at winning over juries.
He represented Maxwell against Private Eye, which immortalised him as Sir Hartley Redface. In fact, he tended to become flushed easily. The Daily Telegraph carried regular reports on the Bar Golfing Society, of which he was vice-president, in which he usually featured as winner of the Pink Cup – an award for the person with the reddest face at the end of the day.
Hartley appeared for the Observer when the Labour leftwinger Michael Meacher sued over a suggestion that he had faked his working-class roots. The MP lost. The paper later carried a profile in which Hartley was described as “prince of the libel bar” and said to be “cool, efficient – but ruthless in cross-examination”. It added: “He can convey on behalf of a defamed client all the hurt and insult that is necessary.”
Amid controversy in the 80s over excessive libel damages, Hartley lobbied against removing the jury’s power to set awards, but acknowledged that judges should provide more guidance on the scale of payouts.
Hartley took silk in 1976 and was later head of chambers, where he was remembered for his sociability and support for younger colleagues.
He had many girlfriends but did not marry until 2018, when he was 86. His wife, Jeannie (nee Merrin), survives him.
• Richard Leslie Clifford Hartley, barrister, born 31 May 1932; died 17 December 2022