A magic circle of judges, a sex abuse probe and the sinister truth about the Fettesgate scandal
- Alleged in the 1990s that ‘magic circle’ of judges conspired to fix sentences
- But Crown investigators found in 1992 the was no evidence of conspiracy
- Detective’s report into claims was stolen from Fettes police HQ in 1992
- Defence lawyer Robert Henderson let it be believed there was a magic circle
- His record of legal figures compromised by their homosexuality did not exist
- Henderson’s daughter Susie has accused late father of abusing her
It was the scandal that shook the Scottish legal establishment to its foundations, leaving no senior figure in the judiciary untouched by the whispering campaign it triggered. And, it appeared, there was not a shred of truth in it.
Exhaustive inquiries by Crown investigators in 1992 found no evidence whatever that a so-called ‘magic circle’ of judges, sheriffs and advocates was conspiring to ensure that homosexual criminals were given soft-touch treatment by the courts. Talk of senior judges in the magic circle being blackmailed by ‘rent boys’ was dismissed by the investigators as fanciful – and claims of corruption and collusion in the judiciary rejected as the ravings of conspiracy theorists. Yet there was just one element in the ‘Fettesgate’ scandal that did not seem to gel. Why was one of Scotland’s most admired and respected defence lawyers so keen to put it about that there was indeed a magic circle?
That man was Robert Henderson, a lawyer so lauded in his profession that fellow advocates used to make a point of slipping into court just to watch him in action. During the 1980s, after a particularly stirring closing speech to the jury in a murder trial, the presiding judge remarked that Henderson’s oratory had been ‘nothing short of masterful’.
He was charismatic, cultured and clubbable. And yet he seemed to want the world to know that the information he was sitting on would ‘blow the lid off’ the legal establishment.
Today’s revelations, detailing the sickening abuse of his daughter and his procurement of the child for high-powered friends to rape and molest, provide the strongest clue to Robert Henderson’s motivation. He was issuing a veiled threat to any and all who would attempt to bring him to justice.
As his daughter Susie Henderson reveals, he used to say: ‘If I go down, they’ll all go down with me.’
The defence lawyer certainly had no shortage of dirt on friends such as former Solicitor General Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, the MP he had allowed to rape his daughter.
But Henderson’s record of senior legal figures supposedly compromised by their homosexuality never truly existed. It was a classic poker player’s bluff – an attempt to convince potential opponents he held a stronger hand than he really did. And it worked. Henderson died at 75 in 2012 with his reputation largely intact.
Retired judge Lord McCluskey was among those to write a glowing tribute to him in the national Press. Henderson the smooth, impeccably attired defence counsel never did move from the well of the court to the part of the room where he truly belonged – the dock, to stand trial.
It was in 1989 that he stumbled upon the ‘insurance policy’ that might protect him against prosecution for the abuse to which he had subjected his daughter a decade and a half earlier. It came in the form of Colin Tucker, a gay solicitor accused – and later cleared – of embezzling funds from the clients of the firm Burnett Walker, where he was a junior partner.
When Henderson was instructed to act as his defence counsel, he asked the solicitor to write him a potted history of his time at the firm to help with his case. The resulting document extended to 32 sides of foolscap.
The second half of it was certainly salacious, dealing with the promiscuity of both Mr Tucker and the senior partner at the firm, Ian Walker, a closet homosexual who committed suicide in 1988. But Mr Tucker’s statement contained damaging revelations about only one other member of the legal fraternity – Court of Session judge Lord Dervaird, who abruptly resigned in 1989. No one else had reason to be nervous. Yet Henderson made them so.
A three-month investigation led by prominent QC and future judge William Nimmo Smith into the alleged ‘magic circle’ conspiracy found: ‘There is no allegation in the statement, directly or by implication, of homosexual behaviour by any prominent member of the Scottish legal establishment.’
The report added: ‘In short, there is nothing in the statement which, if published, would “blow the lid off” the Scottish legal establishment, as we have heard it put.’
But Henderson tried to convince his colleagues otherwise. His first act on receiving the document from Mr Tucker was to breach his client’s confidentiality by passing news of it to legal peers, not forgetting to mention Lord Dervaird in the process.
In the Chinese whispers which followed, the document morphed into a ‘list’ of names – and rumour abounded about the people who might be included on it. It was all sparked by Henderson’s betrayal of his client’s confidence – a schoolboy error it was hard to believe a lawyer as experienced as Henderson could commit innocently. The 101-page Crown report into alleged conspiracy hinted as much.
It said: ‘We cannot avoid the conclusion that Robert Henderson has been one of the main instigators and perpetuators of the belief that there was a document, whether or not in the form of a “list”, containing information relating to persons other than Lord Dervaird, and, in particular, other judges.
‘Even after our inquiry began, he made statements to journalists which did nothing to dispel such a belief.’
Henderson allegedly told one journalist that if the list ever did come out it would ruin many careers in the legal establishment.
He claimed to other journalists that he kept a file in a safe at a secret location which would ‘rock the establishment’ and have reporters ‘salivating all the way to the telephone’.
The report concludes Henderson had chosen to let it be believed that he had information he did not have. One theory the investigators considered is he did so to head off possible criminal charges relating to irregularities in his business affairs.
But they dismissed the possibility that the case had quietly been dropped over fears that Henderson had the legal establishment in a stranglehold.
Could it be that the defence lawyer had much more to lose than his reputation over a few shady business deals? That his persistence in talking up the magic circle ‘list’ had much more to do with providing him an amnesty for his monstrous activities in the family home?
Whatever his motivations, the magic circle conspiracy would probably have amounted to little more than unsubstantiated gossip, had Henderson not handed over a copy of Mr Tucker’s statement to the police.
It was an act that his client viewed as the ultimate treachery. Henderson’s explanation was that he did so in ‘wider interests’, but perhaps they were really rather narrow interests – his own.
The Tucker statement fed into a probe which Lothian and Borders police were already carrying out following allegations of senior public figures involved with rent boys in Edinburgh.
Ultimately it was passed to Detective Inspector Roger Orr, who had received orders to get to the bottom of claims that a well-established circle of homosexuals in the legal fraternity were seriously subverting justice.
The detective’s final report was supposed to be for chief constable Sir William Sutherland’s eyes only. But what happened next made his findings very public indeed.
The reason the scandal is known as Fettesgate is because it was at the Police HQ at Fettes that Mr Orr’s confidential report was to be found. And an intruder slipped in to the building through an open window and stole it.
The thief went to some lengths to disguise his intent in the break-in, daubing Animal Liberation Front slogans on the walls.
But the files taken were so sensitive, so potentially embarrassing, that the true purpose of the raid was soon clear enough. Panic swept the force as the scope for blackmailers dawned on its officers. In the Orr report lay the potential for a collapse of public faith in the judicial system – for the detective did believe that some court cases were influenced by a magic circle.
The thief, it turned out, was a homosexual criminal and police informant called Derek Donaldson, who fed stories from his haul of police files to national newspaper journalists.
Finally Donaldson was assured immunity from prosecution in return for handing back the files, but the controversial findings of the Orr Report still made it into the public domain, causing a national sensation.
So grave was the charge now faced by the Scottish legal establishment that Prime Minister John Major ordered the Lord Advocate to hold an inquiry.
William Nimmo Smith and regional procurator fiscal James Friel were the men now tasked with uncovering the truth about the magic circle ‘conspiracy’.
They found no proof of any such magic circle – but clear evidence that Henderson wanted people to think there was one. Time and again, they concluded, it was ‘loose talk’ by Henderson which promoted the belief in a magic circle.
There was a final, extraordinary twist before the report’s official publication. A man posing as a reporter from a high-brow newspaper managed to con his way into Nimmo Smith’s home with a tape recorder and quiz him on the report’s findings.
The bogus journalist was none other than Derek Donaldson, the Fettes HQ thief.
Donaldson immediately sold his scoop to a tabloid, which ran a story under the headline ‘Nimmo the Dimmo’. Days later, the senior lawyer was admitted to hospital with nervous exhaustion.
It is perhaps significant that Sir Nicholas Fairbairn was among the most vocal critics of the blunder, saying: ‘This absolutely impurifies the whole process. I don’t see that the Lord Advocate can do anything but reappoint a new commission to do the whole thing again.’
Just over two years later, Fairbairn was dead – never in his lifetime exposed as a paedophile. His friend Henderson lived much longer – long enough to learn that his daughter had no intention of letting him get away with his appalling treatment of her as a child.
Calling herself Julie X, she told newspapers in 2000 that her father, a leading Edinburgh lawyer, had abused her from the age of four. The law prevented her from naming him publicly, but he knew who he was – he knew she was coming after him.
And so the final years of a once-universally esteemed lawyer were lived with the tension of his disgrace hanging over him like a filthy raincloud.
He died before it burst. His sudden demise at his retirement home in South-west France spared him from ever facing the consequences of his deeds. And the tributes which followed his death were all generous.
‘It was a joy when Bob walked into court and announced he was appearing as counsel for the defence,’ remembered Lord McCluskey.
‘The lights seemed to shine a little brighter.’
Henderson was, it seems, a much darker character than the senior judge ever realised.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2724364/A-magic-circle-judges-sex-abuse-probe-sinister-truth-Fettesgate-scandal.html#ixzz3HOKPVkvQ
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