Wednesday 13 November 2019

Sir Humphrey Potts

British High Court judge whose most famous case was Jeffrey Archer trial

Sir Humphrey Potts, who has died aged 81, was a British High Court judge from 1986 until 2001, when, in one of his last cases on the bench, he presided over the trial of Jeffrey Archer for perjury.

The case arose from the allegation that Lord Archer had forged two diaries to support a false alibi during his libel trial against the Daily Star newspaper in 1987, when he won £500,000 damages over the report that he had paid the prostitute Monica Coghlan for sex.

In the previous trial, the judge Mr Justice Caulfield famously told the jury in his summing-up: "Remember Mary Archer in the witness-box; your vision of her probably will never disappear. Has she elegance? Has she fragrance?" Of Jeffrey Archer, he wondered: "Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter to one on a Tuesday morning after an evening at the Caprice?"

Potts, an admirably fair-minded yet no-nonsense northerner, was less easily won over, and he conducted the perjury trial with impressive firmness and occasional flashes of humour. Archer declined to give evidence but was nonetheless found guilty by the jury and sentenced to four years' imprisonment – exceeding many lawyers' predictions – for what Potts called "as serious an offence of perjury as I have had experience of and have been able to find in the books".

He added: "Sentencing you, Lord Archer, gives me no pleasure at all. Very little in this case could be said to give any sensible person pleasure. It has been an extremely distasteful case."

Archer later claimed that Potts had been prejudiced against him from the start – basing his assertion on a supposed dinner party conversation between the judge and the art critic Godfrey Barker. However, Potts denied that he had ever made the remarks attributed to him, and the general view among lawyers was that he had handled the trial very sensibly and soundly. Moreover, when Archer made an appeal against his conviction, it took the Court of Appeal judges less than two minutes to reject it.

Francis Humphrey Potts was born on August 18, 1931 and grew up at Penshaw, Co Durham, where his father farmed on the Lambton estate. He attended the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle.

After reading Law at Oxford, Potts read for the Bar at Lincoln's Inn.

Potts did a mixture of criminal and civil work, much of the latter involving either insurance claims or litigation against factories and the Coal Board.

He had a commanding presence as an advocate and was utterly fearless in his cross-examination. His capacity to sway a jury lay in good part in the fact that he was a transparently decent man, with a self-deprecating demeanour that was as endearing as it was genuine.

He disliked pretension and long-windedness, and could never be accused of either. Though clearly clever and well-informed, he always wore his learning lightly.

After taking Silk in 1971, Potts moved to London. He became a Recorder the next year. Following his appointment as a Judge of the High Court he served as Presiding Judge on the North Eastern Circuit from 1988 to 1991.

Potts's other high-profile cases on the bench included the 1992 libel trial in which the South African columnist Jani Allan failed to convince the High Court jury that she had not had an affair with neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre Blanche.

In 1999, at the Old Bailey, Potts presided at the trial of the 78-year-old former British Rail ticket inspector Anthony Sawoniuk for the murder of Jews while working as a Nazi collaborator in his native Belarus in 1942.

Sawoniuk had fled Belarus at the end of the war and had lived incognito in Britain ever since. However, after an extraordinary investigation involving help from the KGB and witnesses from the Belarussian town where the atrocities took place, he was eventually traced to a house in Bermondsey.

After being found guilty, Sawoniuk was sentenced by Potts to two life sentences. He died in prison in 2005.

Sir Humphrey Potts who died on December 2 had married, in 1971, Philippa Margaret Campbell (née Croke). She survives him with their two sons and his two stepsons.

Sunday Independent

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