When Sir Martin Nourse died in 2017, the obituaries marked the passing of a man of great intelligence and gravitas who became one of the outstanding lawyers of his generation.
Also recognised was the support he received from his wife, Lavinia, who was by his side every step of the way as he rose from barrister to acting Master of The Rolls.
A charming, gregarious consort, she was never more comfortable than when entertaining the great and the good at their exquisite £2.75million Cambridgeshire country home.
Over fine wine and home-cooked food with conversation ranging from the law, to poetry, to horse-racing, the guest list read like a roll call of Tory grandees – former
But little more than three years on from those glowing tributes, the 77-year-old found herself standing in the dock of a courtroom accused of paedophilia.
Over a period of nine years during the 1980s, it was claimed, she had repeatedly indecently assaulted a young boy.
Dabbing tears from her eyes as she was found not guilty of sex abuse at Peterborough’s Nightingale court, Lady Lavinia Nourse later told how the ‘cruel and baseless allegations’ had made her life a ‘living hell’
The complainant, who cannot be identified, only revealed what had happened to him in 2018 when he challenged Lady Nourse to ‘take responsibility’ for what she had done.
From the beginning Lady Nourse vehemently denied the abuse ever occurred, dismissing the claims as ‘fantasy’ and saying her accuser was ‘psychologically disturbed’ and had become fixated with her.
She claimed that he only came forward to ‘blackmail’ her following the death of her 85-year-old husband, after which he went to police in the hope that he could later ‘sue her as a convicted paedophile’.
And, even though he could not defend himself, the reputation of Sir Martin was put on trial alongside his wife.
During the eight-day trial, the prosecution claimed the judge had ‘looked the other way’ after being informed of the abuse his wife had allegedly perpetrated.
The claim was made by a witness who told the court that she had twice walked in on Lady Nourse as she indecently assaulted the child.
The woman claimed she told Sir Martin what she had seen after each incident and that he had promised ‘to deal with it’.
Lady Nourse, the daughter of a Royal Navy commander, had married Sir Martin in 1972 after they met at a dinner party. The Winchester and Cambridge-educated barrister was by then a Queen’s Counsel, and would later rise to become Acting Master of the Rolls
The suggestion that Sir Martin was the type of person who might have turned a blind eye to such criminality was contradicted by a string of character witnesses, who vouched for both him and Lady Nourse.
They included Dame Mary who spoke warmly of her ‘generous’ and ‘kind-hearted’ friend, a woman with whom she and her novelist husband Jeffrey had spent numerous Christmases, New Years and foreign holidays together.
She was also backed by historian Simon Heffer, who told the court: ‘I regard Lady Nourse as one of my closest friends. She is a person I regard of being of complete integrity and probity who is very loyal to her friends.’
He added: ‘Sir Martin was one of the most upright people I have met in my life. He took his responsibilities as a very senior judge very seriously. He had a cast-iron belief in justice.’
Yesterday, justice was served in the temporary Nightingale court in Peterborough Cathedral as jurors took just over three hours of deliberation to find Lady Nourse not guilty of five counts of indecently assaulting a boy under 12 and 12 counts of indecency with a child.
Dabbing tears from her eyes as the verdicts were delivered, she later released a statement in which she told how the ‘cruel and baseless allegations’ had made her life a ‘living hell’.
Throughout her life, the word most often chosen to describe Lady Nourse is ‘elegant’ – an adjective also famously applied to Dame Mary.
So when the two women found themselves living in the same Cambridgeshire village, it didn’t take long for them to form a formidable social alliance.
Lady Nourse, the daughter of a Royal Navy commander, had married Sir Martin in 1972 after they met at a dinner party. The Winchester and Cambridge-educated barrister was by then a Queen’s Counsel.
Having become a Chancery High Court judge specialising in cases involving trusts and property, he was just 52 when he joined the Court of Appeal.
Lady Nourse worked in PR, organising premieres of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera in London and New York. She also helped arrange a special recording of a song by children for the Queen’s 60th birthday celebrations.
On another occasion she bravely took part in a record-breaking zip-wire slide across the Thames to raise money for a children’s hospital.
The couple’s time was split between a London flat and the family home in Grantchester, at the time an impressive Georgian property.
In 1979, the Archers also moved to the picturesque village, buying The Old Vicarage, a house made famous by Rupert Brooke in the poem of the same name.
It didn’t take long for Lady Nourse to make contact, asking the new arrivals to open their grounds as part of the National Garden Scheme, of which she was county organiser.
An enduring friendship quickly blossomed. Both ‘cat-mad’, Lady Nourse gave Dame Mary two valuable Abyssinian kittens, and the pair shared a bespoke couture dressmaker.
In court, Dame Mary said: ‘She is one of my closest friends and one of my oldest friends.’
As for Sir Martin, she added: ‘I had the greatest affection and respect for Martin.’
The couples remained in touch even when the Nourses moved in 1994 to Grade II-listed Dullingham House in Newmarket. Following Sir Martin’s death, the 18th-century manor was listed for sale for £2.75million.
Indeed, so close was their friendship that Lady Nourse appears twice in Lord Archer’s novel As The Crow Flies. In one reference, a character called Lady Nourse reacts to a young man’s flattery by blushing, after which her ‘ample breast’ was seen to ‘swell’ with satisfaction.
All good fun, no doubt, but what did emerge in court was that in the early years of their friendship, the real Lady Nourse had gone through a difficult period in her life.
‘I would say that she is normally quite outgoing, but I remember a patch in the early 1980s when she didn’t seem so well,’ Dame Mary told the court.
‘I don’t know the reason. I remember Martin and Lavinia coming to lunch. I remember Martin helping Lavinia out of the car. She looked terrible. She looked really bad.
‘I came to the conclusion that she must have had a miscarriage or something.’
Dame Mary also said she was aware her friend had been involved in a shoplifting incident at the time, adding: ‘Clearly she was not herself at all.’
Giving evidence, Lady Nourse admitted she had suffered from depression for which she had required hospital treatment.
Her depression coincided with the shoplifting incident – something she described as a ‘bad choice’. While the court was told it did not end in a conviction, further details were not revealed to the jury.
But the Daily Mail can reveal that questions were raised about the way in which the matter was resolved.
On October 8, 1982, Lady Nourse was arrested for shoplifting. The ‘shop’ in question was Harrods and the items stolen included two handbags, two pearl necklaces, five belts and – somewhat unusually – two carpets worth a total of £548.
But on the day she was due at London’s Horseferry Road Magistrates’ Court, the charges were mysteriously dropped.
The surprise move came after Lady Nourse’s lawyer had a private meeting with a magistrate, after which a legal representative from the store decided to offer no evidence.
Unsurprisingly, the decision did not go unnoticed by the press. Nor the fact that Lady Nourse’s husband happened to be a High Court judge.
At the time it was suggested that ‘medical issues’ were behind the decision not to proceed with the matter.
Which brings us to the current case. Might it have been possible, Lady Nourse was asked, that while she was unwell, she could have abused the boy and then forgotten?
She strongly denied this, saying: ‘I was perfectly capable of knowing what I was doing.’
The court heard that her accuser made the allegations as he went through a marriage breakdown and monetary problems. He had begun behaving erratically, lost his job and got into debt. His wife finally left him after becoming fed up with his behaviour.
He initially confronted Lady Nourse as she prepared for her husband’s memorial service.
The man said he wanted Lady Nourse to ‘take responsibility’ for her actions. When she failed to do so, he went to the police.
Lady Nourse’s barrister Jonathan Caplan QC told the jury that the complainant only went to police when an attempt to get money failed so that he could eventually ‘sue her as a convicted paedophile’.
He also suggested that none of the alleged incidents had been reported to Sir Martin and that it would have been ‘very, very unlikely’ for him to have done nothing if he had known.
The last word, however, goes to Dame Mary. After learning of the verdicts, she told the Mail: ‘I am delighted but not at all surprised that my friend Lavinia Nourse has been cleared of all the charges brought against her, and that her ordeal finally is over.’
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