Desmond de Silva: Flamboyant barrister with a client list to rival them all

Martin Childs
De Silva’s adventurous life earned him many admirers, but also many enemies and he survived a number of attempts on his life: Rex

Sir Desmond de Silva was an extrovert and larger-than-life barrister who was sought-after by the rich and famous and feared by those being prosecuted by him.

A bon vivant and good-natured man, in a career spanning five decades in the courts of England and abroad, the immaculately dressed 78-year-old carved out a unique reputation as a superb defence counsel in murder and treason trials in Commonwealth countries, and defending impossible cases for high rollers closer to home, earning him the sobriquet “the Scarlet Pimpernel”. Like Emma Orczy’s fictional and chivalrous hero, De Silva was tall, and a dandy and patrician in his ways. He became one of the first million pound-earning barristers.

After more than 250 international murder trials, his particular expertise lay in white collar fraud, extradition, human rights issues, importation of drugs, money laundering, tax and VAT fraud, and espionage and terrorism, producing an eclectic list of clients and cases. However, his greatest legal achievement was perhaps his role in the 2002 arrest and bringing to justice for war crimes of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia.

Being then the only British QC appointed by the United Nations as chief prosecutor of an international war crime tribunal, De Silva managed to secure the arrest of Taylor as he tried to flee to Nigeria, as well as his transfer to Freetown, Sierra Leone. For reasons of regional security, he then had Taylor transferred to the Hague for trial before the International Criminal Court.

The arrest “sends out the clear message that no matter how rich, powerful or feared people may be – the law is above them”, he noted at the time.

Taylor’s conviction in 2012 for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the brutal 10-year civil war and fight for control of “blood diamonds” was the first of its kind since the 1946 Nuremberg trials when Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who succeeded Hitler, was tried and convicted.

Known for his razor-sharp mind, his eloquent and measured delivery and thorough cross-examining, De Silva’s reputation preceded him, making him the preferred barrister of sports stars, celebrities and the well-heeled, becoming known in some quarters as football’s greatest defender, after representing a number of high-profile players.

As well as John Terry, who was acquitted of charges relating to a nightclub fracas in 2002, De Silva’s clients included the former England rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio and football managers Harry Redknapp and Ron Atkinson. He successfully defended the Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers, who, alongside John Fashanu and Bruce Grobbelaar, was charged in a football corruption and match-fixing trial; Lee Bowyer, the Leeds United midfielder tried for grievous bodily harm; and Jacqui Oliver, one of the leading female jockeys of her time, tried for fraud.

Away from sporting celebrities, stars such as Dame Shirley Bassey and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, sought his help. He advised Margaret Thatcher when her son got himself in a spot of bother and also defended Lord Brocket, a polo-playing friend of Prince Charles, in his £4.5m car insurance fraud case, and was involved in Roger Levitt’s City fraud trial. He even saved the life of journalist Raila Odinga, who went onto become Kenya’s prime minister.

De Silva’s adventurous life earned him many admirers, but also enemies; he was shot at overseas, imprisoned, and there was an attempted poisoning while fighting for justice. One night, returning to his hotel, he poured a glass of brandy. His penchant for brandy alerted him to a slight discolouration. Analysis later showed that the brandy was poisoned and he was saved from an excruciating death.

De Silva once threatened to sue a newspaper for publishing an ‘outrageous slur’ that he spent £400 a week on armagnac. ‘I spend much more,’ he said (PA)

Of the shooting in Sierra Leone he recalled: “Nothing is more exciting than being shot at,” before adding, “and missed.”

Born in the former British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1939 in the early months of the Second World War, George Desmond Lorenz de Silva was one of two children born into a privileged family of prominent legal and political figures. During the war, his grandfather, a lawyer and one of the founding fathers of Sri Lankan independence, was a member of Lord Mountbatten’s Ceylon war council and was a regular visitor to the De Silva household, known as Uncle Dickie to Desmond. His father, Frederick, also a barrister, went on to become his country’s ambassador to France and once arranged for Desmond, still in his twenties, to meet President De Gaulle.

Apart from his Sri Lankan heritage, Desmond had Dutch ancestry through his paternal grandmother, and English and Scottish ancestors through his maternal grandmother, whose antecedents lay in the landed gentry of Co Down.

Desmond had an idyllic and privileged childhood swimming in clear rockpools formed by estate waterfalls, visiting the family’s rubber and tea estates and partaking in shooting parties, while meeting visiting movie stars, including Laurence Olivier, his wife Vivien Leigh and Gregory Peck.

In 1951, Desmond went to board at Dulwich College Prep School in London, before returning home and attending Trinity College, Kandy, which functioned on English public school lines with English staff. His father also wanted him to master the Sinhalese language in case he wanted a political or legal career at home.

Aged 24, De Silva was called to the bar at the Middle Temple and entered the famous chambers of Sir Dingle Foot, then the solicitor general; the chambers were under the leadership of Noel Gratiaen, the former attorney general of Ceylon. De Silva took silk in 1984.

After his role in Taylor’s case, the UK government entrusted De Silva with leading a review into the 1989 murder of the Northern Irish lawyer Pat Finucane, who was shot in front of his wife and children at home by loyalist paramilitaries – one of the most controversial killings during the Troubles. Though many saw his 2012 report as damning, writing, “agents of the state were involved in carrying out serious violations of human rights, up to and including murder”, Finucane’s widow called it “a sham and a whitewash” after the report rejected the idea of government conspiracy.

Last year, De Silva’s memoir, Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes – a reference to a transactional misunderstanding around 1967 between a fellow barrister and a prostitute working in Freetown, Sierra Leone – was published to critical acclaim. In it, he threatened to sue a newspaper diary column for reporting that he spent £400 a week on armagnac. “Outrageous slur that damages my reputation,” he griped. “I spend much more.”

He later inherited the island of Taprobane, off the coast of Sri Lanka, and enjoyed his luxuries; while travelling in West Africa, on one occasion he had foie gras flown in to his hotel, explaining: “If you’re living in a foreign country, you owe it to yourself to make life as comfortable as possible … Any fool can be uncomfortable.”

Knighted for services to international law in 2007, he became a privy council member in 2011.

De Silva is survived by Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia, a great-niece of Mountbatten, 20 years his junior, whom he married in 1987. They divorced in 2010 and had one daughter, Victoria, who also survives him.

Sir Desmond de Silva, barrister, born 13 December 1939, died 2 June 2018