Obituary: Alexander Smethurst Jessop Lawyer, prosecutor and sheriff

Alexander Smethurst Jessop, no-nonsense sheriff sat on bench for almost 20 years and was well-respected in court. Picture: Contributed
Alexander Smethurst Jessop, no-nonsense sheriff sat on bench for almost 20 years and was well-respected in court. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 17 May, 1943, in Montrose. Died: 12 January, 2016, in Dundee, aged 72.

Sandy Jessop was probably best known latterly as a no-nonsense, down-to-earth sheriff with a large dose of humanity whose attitude to the law and those who contravened it was always conscientious, clear and fair.

He sat on the bench, in the Grampian Highlands and Islands sheriffdom, principally in Aberdeen and Stonehaven, for almost 20 years and was well-respected by those in the dock, their legal representatives and the media who reported court business.

But in the late 1980s he became notorious amongst the footballing fraternity as the fiscal who insisted on the prosecution of a number of top-flight players following violence on the pitch during an Old Firm game.

That decision was groundbreaking for Scots law but also led to him becoming, arguably, the only Scottish sheriff to have made an appearance on the satirical series Spitting Image when the incident was parodied by the programme which regularly lampooned politicians and celebrities.

Jessop, a football fan himself – he supported Aberdeen FC – and follower of Scotland’s rugby teams, was born in Montrose, the son of draper Thomas Jessop and his wife Ethel, a former gym teacher. He excelled academically at school, going from Montrose Academy to Edinburgh’s Fettes College in 1956 and then on to Aberdeen University where he graduated firstly with an MA in 1964 and then with a law degree two years later.

His legal career began with an apprenticeship at Campbell Middleton & Co solicitors in Montrose where he stayed for ten years and became a partner. During his time with the firm he was heavily involved in the local community, serving as secretary of Montrose Harbour Board and president of Montrose Rotary and Burns Clubs.

He also worked as a Burgh Prosecutor in Montrose and Brechin and followed up that experience by joining the Procurator Fiscal Service in January 1976. He was a depute fiscal in Perth until 1978 when he went to the Crown Office as head of its High Court Unit. Then from 1980 to 1984 he was Senior Assistant Procurator Fiscal in Glasgow, a period that coincided with the city’s brutal Ice Cream Wars – a turf war between ice cream van operators that resulted in the deaths of six members of the Doyle family, including an 18-month-old baby, when their home in Ruchazie was torched.

Jessop was involved in the investigation and preparation of the prosecution case which saw Joe Steele and Thomas “TC” Campbell found guilty on six murder charges. They consistently proclaimed their innocence and 20 years later their convictions were quashed on appeal by three judges at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh who ruled there had been a miscarriage of justice.

Other high-profile cases Jessop was involved in included the innovative prosecution of two Glasgow shopkeepers for selling glue-sniffing kits to children. The accused complained that the allegation that they had been selling glue and plastic bags did not constitute an offence under common law. But the Court of Criminal Appeal disagreed and the pair eventually admitted selling solvents knowing that children intended to inhale the vapours which could be harmful and dangerous to their health and lives. Each was jailed for three years in a case that made legal history.

Following his spell in Glasgow Jessop moved to Aberdeen in 1984, as Regional Procurator Fiscal, where he was involved in investigating one of the North Sea oil industry’s worst accidents – the Chinook helicopter crash of 1986 that claimed 45 lives. The aircraft was on approach to Shetland’s Sumburgh Airport when it suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure and plunged into the sea.

Only two men survived and during the operation to recover the bodies Jessop was determined that the harrowing mission should not be captured on camera by journalists. He was adamant that the victims and their families deserved privacy and dignity.

He spent three years in the North-east before returning to Glasgow as Procurator Fiscal. That same year, 1987, came the incident resulting in the prosecution of footballers involved in an infamous Old Firm match.

Four players denied a charge of disorderly conduct and breach of the peace at the game following a fracas on the field. It was new ground for Scots law and the decision to press ahead with the prosecution was taken by Jessop, supported by the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General. During the case at Glasgow Sheriff Court the sheriff concluded that the law of Scotland applied on the football pitch as much as elsewhere. Two of the four were convicted and fined, one was found not proven and the fourth found not guilty.

Jessop was appointed sheriff at Aberdeen in 1990 and two years later found himself at the epicentre of the investigation into another North Sea tragedy – the Super Puma helicopter crash off the Cormorant Alpha platform which killed 11 men in March 1992. Later that year he conducted the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the disaster, the worst loss of life in the North Sea since the Chinook crash, and recommended an urgent safety review into the use of such aircraft in the North Sea oil industry. A review was later commissioned by the Civil Aviation Authority following his observations and those of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

He retired in 2008 but during his time on the bench he had also been chairman of Aberdeen Victim Support, an honorary lecturer and external examiner at Aberdeen University and a member of the Scottish Legal Aid Board for many years.

He had served as captain of Royal Montrose Golf Club from 1999-2000 and the sport remained his main hobby in retirement when he played at both Montrose and Edzell. Once again he served his community as a board member of Montrose Port Authority and a governor of Rossie Secure Unit in Montrose, a campus providing care and education for troubled youngsters.

A genial, compassionate man for whom the administration of justice was much more than simply a role he fulfilled, he is survived by his wife Joyce, their daughter Alison and sons Graeme and Andrew who both followed their father into the legal profession.