Obituary: Stephen O'Rourke, Principal Crown Counsel and Keeper of the Advocates Library

Stephen O’Rourke, lawyer. Born 17 May, 1976. Died: 8 December, 2021, aged 45

Stephen O'Rourke's career at the Bar covered all parts of the civil and criminal law

Time eats everything up. But let us let Stephen Robb-Russell O’Rourke live a little longer, in our memories of him.

Stephen O’Rourke was born in Gourock on 17th May 1976, to Jim and Patricia. He was the youngest of three siblings: Janet is the oldest; Brian next. In adult life he inflicted upon them his questionable culinary skills, and esoteric dance moves, but his capacity for fun more than compensated.

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Stephen went to St John’s Primary School in Port Glasgow, and to secondary at St Aloysius’ College. Finding joy in English, Latin and Greek, he came to prominence in the school when, aged 13, he had a letter published in the Times about what he described as a schism in the Catholic church. Summers spent with family in Donegal, swimming, canoeing and walking in the hills, animated in him an attachment to that land that oft drew him back to it and his wider family there.

He read law at Edinburgh University. He graduated with First Class Honours. His degree included a year at the University of Bologna. He became a fluent Italian speaker, and a lover of rei Italiani. In 2005, he shared with three friends the purchase of a flat in Abruzzo. His many trips there reflected his passion for that country, as did his ability to chew the cud with local people in the local dialect.

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After the Diploma in Legal Practice, again at Edinburgh, Stephen trained first as a solicitor, with Dundas and Wilson. He then went straight to the Bar. He devilled to James Wolffe and Robert Milligan, both of whom became lasting friends. Devilling included a trip to the House of Lords for the final round of the litigation arising from the Piper Alpha disaster, where Stephen observed a star-studded Bench and Bar.

In 2004, Stephen married Joanna Baird. Their wedding was the scene for a splendid duet by Stephen and his father of A Wee Cock Sparra. Stephen and Joanna had a daughter, Martha, in 2008. Martha was truly beloved by Stephen. No prouder moments had he than when he listened, rapt, to Martha reciting Belloc’s Jim and the Lion, or playing a piece he had helped her learn on the piano (Stephen’s own playing consisting mainly of an idiosyncratic rendition of Donna è mobile).

What followed in Stephen’s career at the Bar was a phenomenal practice, otherwise unknown in these times of increasing specialisation, covering all parts of the civil and criminal law. Appointed an advocate-depute in 2010, he prosecuted a number of murder trials; after he left that post, he was instructed from time to time by defence solicitors whose clients he had prosecuted. Appointed a standing junior to the UK Government in 2013, he acted mainly for the Home Office in immigration appeals, and occasionally for HMRC, to have taxpayers render unto Caesar what was due. For a number of years, he ran the Faculty’s Eurodevil programme, arranging each year for a dozen or so lawyers from the Continent to spend three months in Scotland, shadowing members of the Bench and the Bar. He qualified as a chartered mediator in New York; he became Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators; and he was appointed a legal member of the Parole Board for Scotland in 2017. In 2017, he also took silk. Called to the English Bar in 2018, he joined Field Court Chambers, where his practice was focused on public procurement matters. His fellow counsel in Scotland elected him Keeper of the Advocates Library in 2021, one of the leading positions in the Faculty of Advocates. His final appointment was as Principal Crown Counsel, a role previously held by such luminaries as Lord Rodger, Lord Uist and Lord Turnbull, in September 2021.

Remarkable as a legal practitioner, Stephen was yet more remarkable outside legal practice.

A literary man. His first novel, The Crown Agent, was published to acclaim in 2019. Two sequels contracted for are denied us. But through the pages of that first novel glowed Stephen’s love of stories, of history, and of the Clyde. His enquiring mind delighted in his research for the novel, fascinated for example by the heraldic history of the double-headed eagle. Half of his profits from the novel he donated to the charity Tumblin’ Lassie charity, which fights modern slavery. But this was only one part of his literary endeavours. He edited a glossary of Scots legal terms; he published regular columns on legal topics, principally in The Scotsman; and he left, unfinished, a historical novel recounting the life of Ovid, the mystery of whose exile, and the beauty of whose poetry, captured Stephen. The music-hall song Abdul Abulbul Amir caught Stephen’s inquisitive mind, and he used it as the introduction to a learned essay on the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

A religious man. He regularly attended Mass, most recently in the Chapel of St Albert the Great, on Middle Meadow Walk. More or less annually he took himself, with his father and brother, to a Jesuit retreat for a few days. He walked part of the camino to Santiago de Compostela over two weeks in May 2019, a personal pilgrimage he used to raise funds for a local church.

A political man. He stood as a Conservative Party candidate for Falkirk West in 2007, and later explored the idea of candidacy for the Scottish Parliament. A blog post he wrote about Scottish independence following the Brexit referendum in 2016 became his most viewed post, somewhat to his surprise.

A kind man. If a friend in dire straits, at a café on Great Western Road, Glasgow, called Stephen for help, Stephen would be there in the time it took only to step into his car and drive there from Edinburgh. If a friend came to him in Advocates Library, in the middle of a working day, needing a shoulder, Stephen would take him for a walk and a coffee, and listen.

A joyous man. Quick to laugh; quicker to entertain, with a re-telling of an Algernon Blackwood ghost story, or a reading of Thrawn Janet; with a story of his own, true or imagined; and always with an energy that invigorated any gathering he attended. Golf was a favourite; and he was exhilarated by his first salmon, in August 2021.

Stephen O’Rourke, the best of friends, is survived by his father, Jim; his sister Janet and brother Brian; and his daughter Martha.


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