Landmarks in law: the disgraceful legal history of the Profumo affair

In 1963, London society osteopath Stephen Ward was found guilty of living off the immoral earnings of aspiring model Christine Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies. Geoffrey Robertson, the veteran human rights barrister and author of Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK, calls it “the most disgraceful legal event in modern British history”. “It involved the destruction of an innocent man to stop him causing enormous damage to the Conservative government by revealing that war minister John Profumo had lied to parliament,” he says.

Almost 60 years on, public interest in the the sex and spying scandal known as the the Profumo affair remains undiminished, as demonstrated by the BBC’s recent drama series The Trial of Christine Keeler. It has also been made into a film and an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

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Ward had introduced the 19-year-old Keeler to Profumo, the married secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, at Cliveden, the country house owned by Nancy Astor.

The pair had an affair, which rocked the government when it was revealed that Keeler had also slept with the Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, whom Ward had introduced her to.

Profumo lied and made a statement to the House of Commons denying the affair. Ward initially supported Profumo’s denial, but after police tapped his phone and drove away his clients by making their presence felt outside his consulting rooms, he threatened to expose the truth.

Ward then found himself on trial at the Old Bailey. On the evening after the judge’s summing up, he took an overdose and died three days later after being convicted in his absence.

But, Robertson insists, Ward was innocent. Keeler and Rice-Davies were not sex workers, and there was no evidence that he lived off immoral earnings. In fact the women lived off his income, contributing only a small amount occasionally for food and his telephone bill.

Robertson says the trial was “a charade, presided over by a judge committed to a conviction” and accomplished “not only by police fabricating evidence but by manipulation of the trial by the lord chief justice”.

In 2013, Robertson and solicitor Anthony Burton of London law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton asked the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the body that refers miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal, to look at the conviction. According to Burton, there was no evidence that Ward had lived off immoral earnings

Lawyers acting on behalf of Ward’s nephew, Michael, argued that the conviction was unsafe because of the prejudicial effect of the publicity before and during the trial. They also claimed that there had been judicial interference by the Court of Appeal as crucial evidence had been withheld, and that the trial judge, Sir Archie Marshall, had misdirected the jury.

Robertson explains that the lord chief justice, Lord Parker, and a Court of Appeal bench that included his successor, Lord Widgery, sent a misleading letter to the trial judge. It informed him of the outcome of a case involving Keller but without disclosing that she had committed perjury and was therefore an unreliable witness. Following Ward’s trial Keeler was convicted of perjury.

The “reprehensible” manipulation of the trial by the Court of Appeal, he says, destroyed a key plank of Ward’s defence.

Burton, meanwhile, says that in the judge’s “hugely biased” summing up he wrongly told the jury that they could infer Ward’s guilt from the fact that none of his society friends and patients had come forward to support him. But they were all members of the establishment and had been too afraid to risk their reputations by coming forward.

Among those who failed to speak up in his defence was MI5. Contrary to insinuations at the time, Ward was not working with the Soviets but had in fact been helping the British secret service, and a word from them could have made a significant difference.

Burton and Robertson also argued that the trial was an abuse of the court’s process, because it had been politically motivated in an attempt to silence Ward and stop him from making embarrassing revelations. The trial, says Burton, was an “establishment stitch-up”.

In 2017 the CCRC accepted that the verdict would not stand today because of the massively prejudicial publicity, the misbehaviour of the appeal judges and of the trial judge. But it decided that due to the passage of time and death of Ward, there was no point troubling the Court of Appeal unless there was evidence showing political interference, which they said had not been produced.

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However, the story does not end there. Broadcaster Tom Mangold, who knew Ward, made a BBC documentary which included evidence of a note from Sir Timothy Bligh, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, which supported the claim that the prosecution was politically motivated.

After Ward had telephoned to say that he would no longer support Profumo’s lie, Bligh wrote: “I reported this to the PM when he left the chamber about 5.15pm. There was some discussion with the PM and the chief whip.”

The note continues: “I subsequently consulted the commissioner of police … An arrest possible in a week or so but the case against him not at present very strong.”

Robertson says: “The Bligh memorandum is a smoking gun that provides clear evidence of interference by the prime minister, after the police were told in effect to ‘get Ward’ by the home secretary.”

He believes that the note must have been disclosed to Lord Denning, the former master of the rolls, who wrote the official report on the scandal, but failed to mention it.

The lawyers are thinking about taking the case back to the CCRC. But the whole truth may not be revealed until 2046, when secret files housed at the National Archive – including the trial transcript and inquiries made by Lord Denning – will be opened. They were ordered to remain secret, explains Robertson, until a century after the birth of the youngest witness, Rice-Davies.

Such a trial could still happen today, says Burton, where “moral panic” is whipped up, although safeguards including the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 make it “less likely”.