His Honour Judge Percy Harris, who has died aged 97, won a DSC as a 19-year-old midshipman following the chase and destruction of the German U-boat 1172 in the Irish Sea in January 1945; later in life he caught the attention of the press with some mildly crusty obiter dicta from the circuit court bench.
The son of a bank manager, John Percival Harris was born on February 16 1925. He was educated at Wells Cathedral School, where he was head boy, before going up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read Law.
His studies were soon interrupted when he enlisted in 1943, aged 18, in the RNVR. His first posting as a midshipman was to the group escorting convoys across the Barents Sea to Murmansk, providing protection against potential raids by German U-boats from Nazi-occupied Norway.
He did not see action with the enemy, however, until his transfer in late 1944 to the frigate Keats, escorting Atlantic convoys that were now entering St George’s Channel in far greater numbers since the successful invasion of France, concentrating the area in which Admiral Dönitz deployed his dwindling reserves of U-boats.
On January 27 1945 convoy HX 332 en route from New York to Liverpool entered the Channel, and Keats sailed south to join it as part of the 5th Escort Group. A hunt soon began for the German submarine U-1172, which had torpedoed and damaged the frigate Manners south-west of the Isle of Man and then torpedoed two more Allied vessels west of Cardigan Bay.
Box searches were started, with Keats patrolling on the western extremity of the search plan and Harris striving to familiarise himself with the sonar detection equipment, which he was operating for the first time as a stand-in.
After eight hours, however, he was the first to detect the U-boat, having at last obtained a good Asdic contact. The submarine was then attacked and destroyed by Hedgehog weapons fired from Keats and another frigate, Bligh, causing a considerable amount of wreckage and oil to rise to the surface. There were no survivors.
Awarding Harris the DSC, the commander of the 5th Escort Group noted that he had “displayed outstanding efficiency and devotion to duty, remaining smartly at his post on and off for 36 hours”. The captain of Keats added: “This officer showed coolness and courage although this was his first patrol being a temporary relief for the ship’s ASDIC officer”. Harris was subsequently promoted to sub-lieutenant.
Demobbed in 1946, he returned to Cambridge to finish his degree, before being called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1949 and joining the chambers of the future Labour Lord Chancellor, Gerald Gardiner.
Gardiner was in due course succeeded by Desmond Ackner, who led Harris in his biggest case as a junior, acting for the thalidomide victims in their four-year battle for compensation from the morning sickness drug’s manufacturers, Distillers.
The case was eventually settled after five years with an agreement that Distillers would pay 40 per cent of the damages to which each child would have been entitled had the action been wholly successful. It was widely agreed that, had the case gone to trial, the plaintiffs might well have had difficulty proving negligence.
Harris took Silk two years later, in 1974, and, having served as a Recorder since 1972, became a Circuit Judge in 1980.
On the bench, Harris gained a reputation for impatience. Dubbed “Bomber” Harris by Private Eye, he regarded much of the litigation that came before him as either unnecessary or its conduct too lengthy. When the Lord Chancellor’s Department asked judges to exert more control over long-winded counsel, he was more than willing to comply.
In the manner of a football referee, Harris would show insufficiently succinct barristers a yellow piece of paper; if they persisted with superfluous arguments, out would come a red one. If an advocate still failed to take the hint, he or she would be shown a copy of the relevant law report stating that lawyers who wasted court time might be ordered to pay the excess costs themselves.
In 1990 Harris ordered the Conservative MP David Shaw, who had hired Pamella Bordes as his research assistant – unaware of her past employment as an upmarket call-girl – to pay damages to a female tabloid photographer whom he had “floored” while she was staking out his home.
Harris said the MP had “acted like a child fighting for his favourite toy” and that his defence was “far-fetched and specious”. Instead of contesting the case “at a great deal of expense to everyone”, the judge added, the MP should have apologised and bought the lady a bunch of flowers.
In a race relations case in 1992, Harris caused a furore by insisting that a Rastafarian man remove his woollen hat in court. The judge remained unmoved even after it was explained to him that the colourful hat was worn for religious reasons; the Society of Black Lawyers unsuccessfully applied to the Lord Chancellor to have him removed from the case.
Harris did eventually bow to the pressure, albeit making it clear that he still regarded the dispute as “entirely trivial”. “I did not know that anyone was a Rastafarian, whatever a Rastafarian is,” said Harris. “I find it difficult to understand why the man cannot take off his hat.”
Away from the law, Harris enjoyed reading and was knowledgeable about Victorian art. An avid golfer, he won the Bar tournament three times in the 1960s and was a member of Woking, Rye and Royal St George’s, Sandwich, golf clubs. He continued playing into his nineties and would convene golf matches by sending notice of the fixture via the Royal Mail on a piece of cardboard barely larger than the stamp.
He married, in 1959, Jan Douglas. She survives him with their son and two daughters.
Judge Percy Harris, born February 16 1925, died September 28 2022