Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, who has died aged 94, faced significant opposition when he was appointed to head the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, but his meticulous report transformed policing in Britain. Macpherson’s conclusion, in 1999, that the Metropolitan police investigation into the south London killing had been undermined by “professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”, set fresh standards for forthright judicial criticism.
The stabbing to death of the 18-year-old student Stephen Lawrence by a white, racist gang in April 1993 as he waited for a bus in Eltham provoked community fury over the way police handled the investigation. A private prosecution brought by the Lawrence family against the suspects resulted in acquittals on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
At the inquest into Stephen’s death in 1997, five men refused to answer questions, claiming a privilege against self-incrimination. The jury nonetheless returned a verdict of unlawful killing, adding that it had been an unprovoked, racist attack. In July that year, the new Labour home secretary, Jack Straw, delivered on the party’s commitment to hold an inquiry.
When the lord chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, rang Macpherson, then 71 and a year into retirement as a high court judge, he asked what he was doing the following day. Macpherson replied that he “planned to play golf”. Irvine told him: “No you’re not, you’re coming to London to head up the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.” Macpherson consulted his wife, Sheila, who told him it was his duty to accept.
The Lawrence family had to be convinced by Straw that a white, retired judge who lived in a Scottish castle was the right man for the task. Faced with questions about his judicial record, Macpherson demonstrated his independence.
He arrived at hearings every morning by bus, without security, and followed the evidence through its convoluted twists – exposing repeated police blunders and failures. His demeanour shifted, as the Guardian journalist Hugh Muir, who reported on the inquiry, noted, from “scepticism to concern, to shock, to incredulity”.
Held in offices that formed part of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre in south London, the inquiry began taking evidence in March 1998, listened to 88 witnesses and generated 100,000 pages of documents. The final report, 389 pages long, was delivered in February 1999 – remarkably swift progress compared to public inquiries before and since.
That such a devastating indictment should have been produced by a judge who had been dismissed by critics as an archetypal establishment figure lent his clearly formulated recommendations extra credibility and impact. The report led to legal changes, targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of black and Asian officers, and the creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
A recommendation to abolish the “double jeopardy” rule – preventing suspects being tried twice for the same offence – resulted in the 2012 conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Lawrence’s murder.
Born in Blairgowrie, Perth and Kinross, Macpherson was the only son of Brigadier Alan Macpherson, 26th hereditary chief of the Clan Macpherson, and his wife, Catharine (nee Hill). He was educated at Wellington college, Berkshire, where he was a keen rugby player.
In 1944, he joined the Scots Guards and was commissioned as a captain. Leaving full-time service in 1947, he remained a member of the territorial army’s 21st SAS Regiment, becoming its commanding officer and eventually its honorary colonel. He was also a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the ceremonial guard for the Queen in Scotland.
After Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, Macpherson was called to the bar in 1952. He was appointed a QC in 1971 and a recorder, or part-time judge, the following year. Described as scrupulous and renowned for succinct legal opinions, he became head of 39 Essex Chambers. There he was remembered for his “great charisma, charm and humour… as well as his “rigour and deep dislike of institutional wrongdoing”.
In 1983, Macpherson was knighted and became a high court judge in the Queen’s Bench division. Between 1984 and 1988 he was presiding (most senior) judge of the Northern Circuit. He conducted trials at the Old Bailey including a high-profile case in which three former detectives were cleared of perverting the course of justice in relation to charges against the Guildford Four. He also sentenced the serial killer Robert Black to life imprisonment in 1994 with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 35 years. Macpherson retired in 1996.
As the 27th hereditary chief of Clan Macpherson – the Cluny element of his name came from the site of the clan’s historic seat of Cluny Castle, Aberdeenshire – he took his responsibilities seriously. In 2017, leading the clan at the opening of the Edinburgh International Tattoo, he turned down the invitation to sit in the royal box, saying he wished to “sit among my people”.
Interviewed on the 20th anniversary of the Lawrence report, Macpherson said: “I couldn’t work miracles about making the police behave better or improving the relationships between black and white people. But I hoped that the inquiry might assist.”
Macpherson and Stephen’s mother, Doreen (now Lady) Lawrence, remained in contact long after the inquiry. After his death, she said he had “the decency and integrity to listen carefully to what was overwhelming evidence of racism infecting the investigation into my son’s murder”.
Macpherson married Sheila Brodie in 1962. She died in 2003 and their eldest son, Alan, died in 2007. Macpherson is survived by his partner, Hilary Burnham; his son, Jamie, who succeeds him as 28th chief of the Clan Macpherson, and his daughter, Annie.
• William Alan Macpherson of Cluny, lawyer and judge, born 1 April 1926; died 14 February 2021