Lives of the fellows

Cecil Montacute (Sir) Clothier

b.28 August 1919 d.8 May 2010
KCB(1982) BCL Oxon(1948) QC(1965) Hon LLD Hull(1982) Hon FRPharmS(1990) Hon FRCP(1998)

Sir Cecil Montacute Clothier (‘Spike’) was a lawyer who promoted the cause of justice, not only through the courts but on public bodies and enquiries. He was also the first ombudsman to come from outside the civil service and was later the first chair of the Police Complaints Authority (PCA).

Born in Liverpool, he was the son of Hugh Montacute Clothier, a dental surgeon, and his wife, Helen. Educated at Stoneyhurst College, Lancashire, he studied law at Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1939 he enlisted with the Royal Signals, causing him to fall out with his father - a rift which lasted 20 years - who had seen appalling injuries during the First World War. Serving with the 51st Highland Division at Alamein, he laid communication lines, set up radio links and, during the battle had to make deceptive transmissions from various places adopting English and Scottish accents. He discovered that one of the greatest dangers was lack of sleep when he woke up to find that he was riding his motorbike down an embankment into a minefield. A popular mess pianist, he was nicknamed ‘Spike’ by his comrades after a character in an American film. Transferred to Washington in 1943 as a member of the British Army Staff, he qualified as a pilot and served on various development committees. While there he met Mae West who was so impressed by his accent she said that she would send her son to Oxford to learn to speak like him.

Demobilised with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1946, he returned to Oxford and graduated as a bachelor of civil law in 1948. Two years later he was called to the bar and joined the Inner Temple. He began to specialise in industrial accident work. In 1965 he became the recorder of Blackpool, took silk and became a crown court judge for 13 years, also becoming a judge of appeal in the Isle of Man from 1972 to 1978.

In 1972 he conducted his first inquiry, which was into deaths caused by contaminated dextrose solution at Devonport Hospital. He also became an assessor for the General Medical and Dental Councils and was a member of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service. Appointed parliamentary commissioner for administration (or ‘ombudsman’) and health service commissioner in 1979, by the government of Harold Wilson, his post was originally thought to be merely a token role. However he soon began to make his presence felt and drew attention to his observation that three quarters of the complaints made about doctors and medical services were probably justified. He was, he said, ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ by cases such as that of a woman who had ‘should be dead’ written on her diet sheet’.

Offered the opportunity to become the first chair of the PCA in 1985, he resigned from his other positions. The four years that he spent there were not without controversy, especially when he failed to condemn the officers who used excessive force when dealing with a student demonstration in Manchester in 1985 or in 1987 when they were dealing with a hippy peace convoy near Stonehenge. In other ways he was very critical of various miscarriages of justice and, when he was asked if he was disturbed by the fact that the police federation passed four votes of no confidence in him, remarked ‘I would be a lot more worried if they passed a vote of confidence. It might suggest that some of the accusations that we work hand in glove with the police are true’. Retiring from the PCA in 1989, he joined the Senior Salaries Review Body, became vice-president of the Interception of Communications Tribunal and chairman of the Committee on Ethics of Gene Therapy.

In 1993 he was appointed to chair an inquiry into how a nurse, Beverley Allitt, could murder four children and attack nine others in the space of three months without detection at Kesteven and Grantham Hospital. Clothier was criticised for opting to hold the proceedings in private, defending his position on the grounds that witnesses giving evidence in private can speak with ‘a frankness that can be startling’. His report, published the following year, was highly critical of the paediatricians, nursing staff and middle management involved. Much was made of the fact that crucial evidence of malevolent activity was missed. The outcome of the inquiry was not particularly successful. The consultants concerned felt victimised, the parents of the dead children viewed the report as a ‘cover up’ since none of the senior management lost their jobs, and the promised government actions were not very wide-ranging.

He took up gliding in the 1960s and indulged his passion for music by building a clavichord and a spinet. A keen sailor, he also loved reading the novels of Joseph Conrad. Medicine had always played an important part in his life and he was pleased to be elected an honorary anaesthetist, honorary pharmacist and honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He wrote the preface to the third edition of The Oxford Textbook of Medicine (Oxford, University Press, 1996) and this became the first chapter of the fourth edition (2004). Having been a patient of Sir Magdi Yacoub’s since the mid-1970s, he was active in the campaign to save Harefield Hospital from closure.

In 1943 he married Mary née Bush and they had two daughters and a son. Mary died in 1984 and he married Diana Phyllis née Stevenson in 1992. When he died, Diana survived him together with his daughters, a son who is a Downside monk and three stepsons.

RCP editor

[The Guardian; The Telegraph; Wikipedia; BMJ 1994 308 491 - all accessed 1 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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