For years his pursuit of the slightest real or imagined slur on his clients’ reputation would provoke one of his notoriously intimidating letters. His signature at the bottom of a letter could wipe the smile from the face of even the most cocksure of newspaper editors. Often seeming at first reading almost emollient, they invariably contained the veiled but unmistakable threat of writs and huge costs to come.
And they worked; hence an A-list clientele including Laurence Olivier, Harold Wilson, Cary Grant, Lucian Freud, Cecil Parkinson, Michael Heseltine, Winston Churchill and Ranulph Fiennes. Most of them were extremely grateful for his services. Winston Churchill, for example, said he previously always believed “the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow” but: “I shall now have to revise that judgement. You have broken all records.” Harold Wilson said after a settlement with the Daily Mail: “They seem to have printed your formula exactly as required and in a somewhat grovelling fashion.”
Born in 1914, Carter-Ruck was educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford before he was admitted as a solicitor in 1937.
He served with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War before becoming a senior partner with Oswald Hickson Collier & Co from 1945-1981. He then set up Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, which he left after a falling out with colleagues in 1998.
The legendary lawyer’s knowledge of libel was regarded as second to none. He claimed three years ago to have lost only one high-profile case – that involving Jani Allan, a South African journalist, who sued Channel 4 over allegations she had an affair with extremist Afrikaner Eugene Terre’Blanche.
Mr Carter-Ruck said later: “The only certainty in litigation is the expense. There is always a risk in going to court and you have to have very good judgement. I settle on more than 90 per cent of the cases I am asked to advise on.”
Yesterday, a partner in Mr Carter-Ruck’s old firm, Nigel Tait, recalled how Mr Carter-Ruck’s big break came not working for the plaintiff but the defendant in a defamation case against the Bolton Evening News in 1948. Bessie Braddock, an MP, had been accused of dancing a jig across the House of Commons by the newspaper. She sued. Mr Carter-Ruck won.