Obituary: Sir Denis Henry QC

Acute legal brain made son of brigadier the natural choice to preside over Guinness trial

Born: 19 April 1931, in Kent.

Died: 6 March, 2010, in London, aged 78.

HE HAD an agile and acute legal brain that could absorb the most complex legal and financial case with apparent ease. Sir Denis Henry could not only master such a brief, but he then displayed an uncanny ability to explain it to a jury in a most straightforward manner.

It is thought, in legal circles, that that expertise was one of the reasons why Sir Denis presided over the Guinness trial in 1979. It was the biggest criminal trial of the era and attracted widespread publicity. It gained a certain notoriety simply because of the dramatic takeover and outsized personalities involved.

Sir Denis oversaw the case with a diligent patience and was widely praised for his balanced and even-handed treatment.

The bid proved particularly controversial in Scotland. Distillers was one of the leading public companies here and had a proud history of whisky and gin distilling. Its shares were widely held by the Scottish financial institutions and its head office in Torphicen Street in Edinburgh's Haymarket ensured it had a very definite Scottish identity.

Guinness was viewed as an outsider and many in Scotland preferred a rival bid from Sir Jimmy Gulliver's Argyll Group.

Essentially, the Guinness Four (as they came to be known), Ernest Saunders, Gerald Ronson, Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes, were tried in 1990 after the successful takeover of Distillers by Guinness. The Four stood trial for attempting to manipulate the share price of Distillers in the 2.7bn takeover.

They bought shares in Guinness to ensure their bid was more advantageous to shareholders than the offer from Argyll Group.

One of the major legal arguments centred on the decision by the four defendants to guarantee, without limit, the Guinness share price to institutional purchasers. The Four argued such an action was a legitimate market practice and assisted all shareholders in gaining the best price.

As the trial became more involved in financial dealings and huge sums of money (Saunders admitted he had raised $100m through the Wall Street broker Ivan Boesky), Sir Denis continually pared down the evidence to the essentials and ensured the jury concentrated on the bare facts and not the dramatic sums and colourful information that came out.

Despite the huge media scrutiny Sir Denis preserved a calm and rational presence throughout the 112 days of the trial (it cost 7.5m – at the time the most expensive in British legal history). His legal authority and courtesy ensured that a fair trial took place.

Eventually, the jury returned guilty verdicts in all four cases and although the decision was challenged in the Court of Appeal in 2001, it was ruled that the trial had been fair.

It was his succinct summing up that impressed colleagues and the public. Never descending into gimmicky hyperbole, he described Ernest Saunders (the Guinness chief executive) as "a very determined and single-minded man, used to getting your own way and relentless in pursuit of it".

Before sentencing Saunders to five years in prison, Sir Denis concluded: "I am quite satisfied you were at the centre of the dishonest conduct that occurred to Guinness at the time of the Distillers takeover."

Denis Robert Maurice Henry was the son of a brigadier in the British Indian Army, but he was born in the UK and initially educated at the Dragon School in Oxford.

When war was declared, he attended Harvard in America before completing his education at Shrewsbury School and Balliol, College, Oxford, where he first read history but changed to law. He got a half blue at golf – a sport that was to remain a passion all his life.

In 1954 he read for the Bar in London and built up a good reputation in civil cases. He started concentrating on commercial and aviation law and represented the families of passengers killed in an air disaster in 1973.

Sir Denis took Silk in 1977 and that year was involved in the high-profile Grunwick Case, which involved a trade union demand for recognition in a north London factory. Mass picketing of the site had lasted almost two years.

When the case came to court, Sir Denis represented Acas (the conciliation board) and although he lost his case, the meticulous care he had taken to present his brief resulted in his being chosen to sit in the Guinness trial.

The pressure of two such lengthy and intricate trials did not stop Sir Denis from remaining active in the profession. In 1993 he was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal and a year later he became chairman of the Judicial Studies Board. The latter post he fulfilled with particular distinction, being concerned that the general understanding of the intricacies of the law should be more widely understood by the judiciary.

Sir Denis retied in 2002 and a year later was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He is survived by Linda Arthur, whom he married in 1963, and their son and daughter. Another daughter died in 1981.