Tributes to '˜giant of Scots law' Lord McCluskey

Tributes have been paid to Lord McCluskey, a former high court judge, Labour peer and Scotsman columnist, whose death was announced on Thursday.

Lord McCluskey at home in Edinburgh in 2010. Picture: Mike Day
Lord McCluskey at home in Edinburgh in 2010. Picture: Mike Day

Described as “a giant of Scots law”, John Herbert McCluskey enjoyed one of the most distinguished legal careers of the late 20th century.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon said he was “one of the outstanding Scots lawyers of his generation”.

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McCluskey served as Solicitor General for Scotland from 1974 to 1979 and as a Senator of the College of Justice from 1984 to 2004.

Lord McLuskey in January 1985. Picture: Bill Newton/TSPL

He then conducted a high-profile inquiry on the relationship between Scotland’s courts and the UK Supreme Court.

He concluded that only those cases of “general public importance” should be taken to the Supreme Court. “The UK and Scottish governments accepted entirely what we decided, which was very satisfactory,” he later said.

Born in 1929, the son of a solicitor, McCluskey graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1952 and was admitted to the Faculty of Adocates three years later.

By the time he was appointed Solicitor General in 1974 on the recommendation of Harold Wilson’s Government he had already made a name for himself as one of the brightest brains at the bar.

Lord McLuskey in January 1985. Picture: Bill Newton/TSPL

McCluskey famously represented Paul McCartney in 1972 after the former Beatle had been charged with a number of offences, including growing cannabis, on his Machrihanish farm. The trial was to take place in Campbeltown.

He managed to get all but one of the charges dropped on technical grounds and the pop star pleaded guilty to growing cannabis. To the amusement of the court, the QC argued that his client had a genuine interest in horticulture and a fine of £30 was imposed.

He recalled what happened next to The Scotsman in 2005. “At the end of the hearing, Len Murray (McCartney’s solicitor) leaned over to me and said, ‘Ask for time to pay’. So I did, and the place erupted. It was the coup de thtre to the day.”

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He was elevated to the peerage in 1976 and remained an active peer until earlier this year, when he retired due to ill health.

In 2005 he began writing a weekly Scotsman column and remained a regular contributor to the title for several years.

Lord McCluskey was never afraid to speak out on legal matters. In 2015, he used a Scotsman column to strongly criticise the SNP Government over its plan to abolish corroboration.

“Corroboration is not the most important issue in Scottish society; but the way in which it was treated by the legislature makes me think of the fate of the canary down the mine: when it falls from its perch, you know that it is not just the canary that is in danger,” he wrote.

In March he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Scottish Legal Awards. Speaking before the event, he said he considered his lifetime achievement to be helping safeguard the independence of the judiciary from a provision of the Scotland Bill which would have allowed Parliament to remove judges.