Sir Maurice Drake, the judge in charge of the jury list from 1991 to 1995, died on 6 April 2014, aged 91. There was an obituary in the Daily Telegraph on 9 April 2014. After war service in the RAF – as a navigator on night fighters – where he won a DFC, Maurice Drake studied law and joined the Chambers of Quinton Hogg (later Lord Hailsham).
He was a successful common law practitioner, doing both criminal and civil work – including some libel. According to the Daily Telegraph obituary
Sir Oswald Mosley, would regularly consult Drake – who did not share his client’s political sympathies – on various libel suits.
Maurice Drake QC was appointed to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court in 1978. He succeeded Mr Justice Michael Davies as the judge in charge of the jury list in 1991 – at a time when the job was not regarded as a “specialist” appointment but was, rather, given to a senior Queen’s Bench judge approaching retirement. Mr Justice Drake was a charming and popular libel list judge. Over the next four years he presided over a number of high profile libel jury trials, including:
- Gorman v Mudd (July 1991) – an action by then Teresa Gorman MP in relation to a defamatory mock press release with a small circulation. The jury awarded her £150,000 but this was reduced by the Court of Appeal to £50,000.
- Donovan v The Face (April 1992) – the actor Jason Donovan was awarded £200,000 damages after an article in Face magazine alleged he was “queer” and had lied about his sexuality. Although it was debatable as to whether the allegation of being “queer” was defamatory, the plaintiff appears to have succeeded on the allegation of hypocrisy.
- Mitchell v Book Sales Ltd (November 1992) – an action by Mitch Mitchell against the publishers of a biography of Jimi Hendrix in which it was alleged that the plaintiff had called Mr Hendrix a “nigger” in the 1960s, The claim was dismissed and the plaintiff’s appeal was unsuccessful.
- John v MGN (November 1993) – in which the singer was awarded £75,000 compensatory and £275,000 exemplary damages. This, the last award of exemplary damages in an English libel trial, was reduced to £50,000 by the Court of Appeal, which also reduced the compensatory damages to £25,000 ( QB 586).
- Taylforth v News Group (January 1994) – which resulted from a story in the Sun describing how the actress Gillian Taylforth had performed an “indecent act” on her fiancé in her Range Rover on a slip-road off the Al. The plaintiff lost after George Carman QC persuaded Drake J to admit a video showing her at a party cavorting with a German sausage. The Independent reported the result under the headline “High drama as actress loses libel case: The ‘sex in car’ hearing featuring a star of ‘EastEnders’ ended with scenes worthy of ‘Casualty’ and a pounds 500,000 legal bill“.
Drake J was the trial judge in Allason v Campbell (May 1996) – a malicious falsehood claim brought by Rupert Allason MP against Alastair Campbell. In the course of his judgment dismissing the claim Sir Maurice said “I did not find Mr Campbell by any means a wholly satisfactory or convincing witness”.
The libel case which made the greatest impression on Sir Maurice was Gordon Angelsea v Observer which he tried with a jury December 1994. The plaintiff, Mr Angelsea, was a retired police superintendent who sued two national newspapers, The Observer and the Independent on Sunday, the magazine Private Eye and HTV, the holder of the ITV franchise in Wales. He claimed the four defendants had accused him of being a child abuser during visits he made to the Bryn Estyn children’s home just outside Wrexham. The jury found in his favour 10:2. The damages were agreed at £375,000. In 2010, Sir Maurice told journalist Paddy French:
“For about five years as the Judge in charge of the civil jury list … I tried a very, very large number of defamation cases. Many of them did not make any lasting impression on me; but others did and none more so than that of Supt Anglesea.”
He went on to say
“One thing which I still have a very clear recollection of is the splendid advocacy of George Carman for the defence and Lord Williams of Mostyn for the plaintiff.”
“Although George Carman displayed all his usual skills with the jury he was, on this occasion, outshone by Gareth Williams.”
“Without Lord Williams’ advocacy I think it very possible indeed that the jury would have found for the defendants — and meeting both of them socially I told each of them that view. …
“In my view the evidence was very finely balanced.
“My summing up was, I believe, absolutely free of any indication of what I felt the verdict should be.
I would not have been surprised if the jury had found for the defendants.
I believe that it was the evidence of Mrs Anglesea which tipped the scales in favour of the plaintiff.
Many jurors would find it difficult to believe that a married man could have a full sexual relationship with his wife at the same time as he was committing buggery … ”
The trial was also noteworthy because Sir Maurice was, like Mr Angelsea, a freemason. He declared his interest at the outset of the trial and no objection was taken to him being the trial judge. Maurice Drake had joined a lodge called Justinian in 1948. For about 20 years he was President of the Masonic Court of Appeal. When asked about his freemasonry by the Lawyer in 1995 he said:
“My father and my grandfather were masons. You meet people that you wouldn’t meet otherwise and you can have a very good dinner.
You don’t talk about politics and you don’t talk about religion, and in a way it is quite a relief not to. You can talk about work – people ask me about the cases I have been involved in.
It involves play-acting. An outsider might say it is a lot of grown men behaving like children. I can understand that, but it is fun all the same. The secrecy was always silly and I think the majority of people think it is not very important.
There is certainly no conspiracy. The only criticism one might level is that if a number of people all work for a council, those who are masons may favour others who are masons. But that has arisen because they know each other, not because they are masons.
If I were trying somebody and they tried to signal to me or whatever, I would have to restrain myself from increasing the sentence”.
In November 1993, Mr Justice Drake granted an injunction to Princess Diana to restrain the publication of photographs taken of her exercising in a gym by the owner, Bryce Taylor. The Princess was represented by Lord Williams QC and the defendants were represented by David Eady QC. The injunction was granted after an 80 minute private hearing. The case was settled, shortly before trial, in February 1995.
Mr Justice Drake retired from the High Court Bench in 1995 at the age of 72 and was succeeded as judge in charge of the jury list by Mr Justice French – who resigned due to ill health after only two years in the post.