In this series about a judge’s guide to advocacy I looking at – and recommending –   “A Life of Crime” by (Sir) Harry Ognall (plain “Harry Ognall” on the front page of the book).  Unlike a lot of memoirs this offers practical guidance, coupled with a lot of humour. Above all else I have to emphasise that its usefulness goes far beyond the criminal bar. I will review the book more generally in a later post.  Here I look, specifically, at the chapter aimed at advocates, coupled with the – unusual – story behind one of the most devastating cross-examinations of all time.


Harry Ognall practised as a junior and silk at the bar in Leeds before he became a High Court judge. Famously he was the QC who cross-examined the psychiatric experts in the Yorkshire Ripper case (to devastating effect).


The book is in several parts, part biography and part a history of key cases. However it goes beyond that. Chapter 4 is entitled “Advice to the Young Advocate”. Needless to say that is what we are looking at here. This is a summary – no substitute for reading the thing.


  1. Complete mastery of the facts and the relevant legal principles.
  2. An extensive but not ornate mastery of the English language.
  3. An experience of life’s realities, and especially its temptations.
  4. Independence of judgment and of conduct.
  5. Integrity.
  6. Flexibility – the capacity to think on your feet.
  7. Relish the opportunity and the challenge.
  8. “Off the cuff is out of bounds”.
  9. “Self awareness”  “A youngster who recognizes his or her weaknesses is an improver. Learn from your mistakes”.
  10. Be aware of the dangers of egotism. Do not confuse it with self-confidence.
  11. Be brave,
  12. Once you have determined on your course, follow it with confidence.
  13. Despite the formal and sombre character of the trial process, do remember that there are few cases which do not admit of a humorous element.
  14. Never act as counsel for family or friends.
  15. If a trial involves scrutiny of documents, always examine originals not copies, never be content with looking at the face of them.
  16. When you are on your feet and examining or cross-examining a witness, always keep an eye on the judge and the jury.
  17. The danger of asking one question too many is something always to be borne in mind when conducting a cross-examination.
  18. Be courteous in your conduct and demeanour.
  19. Never take advantage of your position to be gratuitously cruel or vindictive to a witness.
  20. Do not forget that examination in chief is an art form, too.
  21. Courtesy and demeanour are best accompanied by deportment and by smart attire.
  22. “I have to acknowledge that, when all is said and done, you will still need luck”
  23. Everything you do as an advocate at the Bar should be founded on the bedrock of the interests of justice, and subordinate to that principle


The book contains an account of what must have been one of the most devastating cross-examinations of all time. Harry (you feel on first name terms when you read the book) was the QC with the task of cross-examining the psychiatric experts for the defence in the Yorkshire Ripper case.  The Attorney-General of the day, Michael Havers, was leading the prosecution. He wanted to accept pleas of manslaughter, not murder.   This was on the grounds of the psychiatric evidence who, in turn, relied on what they had been told by Peter Sutcliffe. Harry disagreed and, in a conference with his junior at  Michael Havers’ chambers prior to trial,  they questioned  the prosecution experts prior to trial

“After it was all over, one of the senior detectives in the case told us that one of the doctors had said to him ruefully that they thought Sir Michael was a gentleman – but they did not much care for the “two gorillas he had brought down from the North”. 


Harry got his way.  The “gorillas from the North” shook more than a few trees.  I have looked before at the devastating cross-examination of the experts  It can be read in full here .  He spent hours in preparing, the first question, alone. That question was:

“Of everything that Sutcliffe told you about his reasons for killing these women, was there any single thing you did not accept?”.

As it was the doctor said he had accepted everything Sutcliffe had told him.  This formed the launch pad for the cross-examination which was, ultimately, so effective.


The cross-examination took several weeks to prepare.  A flat was hired in London.

“Apart from the scale of the task, I remember my stay in that flat for a quite separate reason. One morning, I went to collect the milk bottle from the front doorstep. The door swung closed and locked me out. I had no key. Dressed only in my underpants, I had to cross the Brompton Road and make a reverse-charge call to Chelsea police station. I can tell you that the officers who attended took some persuading that I was a QC preparing my cross-examination in the Sutcliffe trial”.