Obituary: Paul McBride QC, high-profile criminal lawyer who was appointed Queen’s Council at the age of just 35

Paul McBride QC
Paul McBride QC
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Born: 13 November, 1964. Died: 4 March, 2012, in Lahore, Pakistan, aged 47.

Called to the Scottish Bar at 22 and appointed Queen’s Counsel aged only 35, he was considered one of his generation’s finest courtroom advocates.

Paul McBride was born on 13 November, 1964, and educated at Glasgow’s St Aloysius’ College before studying law at the University of Strathclyde. He matriculated aged only 16, knowing from his late teens that he “wanted to work as a court lawyer or advocate”, and resolving to “practice in the highest courts in the land, rather than the sheriff courts”.

McBride graduated at 19 and joined a firm of solicitors in Ayrshire. After completing his two-year traineeship he devilled for nine months, his two devil masters, Graham Bell and Anne (later Lady) Smith, encouraging him to spend as much time as possible watching other advocates at work. Thus McBride’s pugilistic style drew inspiration from Bell, Donald Findlay’s cross-examination technique, while he “borrowed elements” from Lord Macaulay. Always well briefed, rule number one – as he would later recall – was “read the papers”.

Despite his natural self- confidence, McBride found the experience of being called to the Scottish Bar in his early twenties daunting. “I was very young, looked even younger and was very inexperienced,” he later recalled of his first, and very “poor”, appearance. “I was obviously affected by it, but wiser counsel told me…to overcome my reservations…by getting back into court the next day. For nine years thereafter, I spent every day appearing in the appeal court and the experience…I gained from that was invaluable.”

Asked later how he had survived, McBride replied: “Luck and ability.” McBride certainly possessed the latter; although he wanted to do civil work, he went instead to the Court of Criminal Appeal (in 2000 McBride co- authored the book Criminal Appeals with Lord McCluskey) and also specialised in regulatory crime, dealing with the Glasgow Stockline tragedy, as well as the Castle Craig and Rosepark fatal accident inquiries. McBride took silk in 2000, at which point he was reportedly the youngest QC in the UK.

His criminal work was usually conducted under the glare of the media spotlight, selected cases including Her Majesty’s Advocate (HMA) v Marek Harcar, the Moira Jones murder trial, HMA v Nat Fraser, the Arlene Fraser case, HMA v Vitas Plytnykas, the Arbroath “head on the beach” murder trial and the Surjit Singh Chhokar trial. Recently, McBride led the legal teams that won the acquittal of human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar of contempt of court in July 2008, and Gail Sheridan of perjury in late 2010.

A passionate Celtic fan, McBride nevertheless defended the Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor on sex attack claims that did not reach court in 2009, and since 2010 represented Celtic FC on a number of legal and disciplinary matters, defending Celtic staff in court including touchline bans for its manager, drink-driving charges and charges of child neglect.

McBride’s nervous energy inevitably found other outlets, his love of the media producing an unusually high public profile for a criminal advocate (he was a regular pundit on STV’s Politics Now).

In April 2011 McBride, Celtic manager Neil Lennon and the then Labour MSP Trish Godman were sent parcel bombs, the device dispatched to McBride having been intercepted by Royal Mail at a depot in Kilwinning. Earlier, he had compared death threats directed at Lennon to terrorist actions and internet child pornography.

Some Faculty colleagues disapproved of McBride’s often colourful public pronouncements, deeming them inappropriate for someone in his position. Last April, for example, he branded the Scottish Football Association (SFA) “the laughing stock of world football”, and “not merely dysfunctional and dishonest, but biased”. This followed an SFA disciplinary hearing involving three Rangers staff members; McBride apologised after the SFA made a formal complaint to the Faculty of Advocates and threatened legal action. Latterly, McBride was also drawn to politics, making a high-profile switch from Labour to the Conservatives in 2009. “I have been a supporter of the Labour Party all my life,” he said at the time, explaining that he could no longer support a party that was “serially mendacious and incompetent”. He spoke at that year’s Scottish Tory conference and agreed to advise the party on justice matters, with an eye to becoming advocate general for Scotland should David Cameron win the 2010 general election. In the event, the Conservatives had to rely upon the Liberal Democrats to form an administration and the post went instead to Jim Wallace.

Gradually, McBride grew disillusioned with the Scottish Conservative Party and resigned when it refused to back SNP- initiated laws on minimum alcohol pricing and anti-sectarianism. Tory MSPs, he told a Sunday tabloid, were “the most moronic, dysfunctional, introspective bunch” he had ever seen. When First Minister Alex Salmond became embroiled in a war of words with the Supreme Court’s Lord Hope, McBride was publicly supportive.

In the last year of his life, McBride said prominent Scots had “stuck their head in the sand for too long when it comes to sectarianism and religious bigotry”. He explained: “We need to tackle the issue head on by educating people and if people aren’t prepared to accept that, then we need to criminalise them.”

McBride was similarly forthright about jury trials, arguing late last year that potential jurors ought to be interviewed to establish that they could “read, write and speak English” and were not “riven with prejudice”.

McBride was a former vice-chairman of the Faculty of Advocates Criminal Bar Association and a serving board member of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, a system of which he was a staunch defender. On occasion, he acted as advocate depute, and was standing counsel for the Police Association, Prison Officers’ Association, Gamekeepers’ Association, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.

A witty and engaging man, the broadcaster Bernard Ponsonby, who was at university with McBride, said he “was a character of contrasts, the contrast between his aggressive courtroom manner and his very quiet demeanor as a student; the contrast between everything he did in the public eye and the fact he was an intensely private person”.

Paul McBride is understood to have died in his sleep yesterday while in Pakistan on business. He is survived by his parents and his partner, the interior designer Gary Murphy.