RICHARD Cherrill’s first murder case was particularly harrowing. A Hells Angels biker was accused of dumping a body in Shoreham harbour and weighing it down.

“They came to a very sticky end and were eaten by crabs and things,” the barrister said. “That was an absolutely fascinating case.”

The verdict?

“He was very, very guilty.”

It is among hundreds, if not thousands of criminal cases the 73-year-old, called to the bar 50 years ago, has prosecuted and defended during his career.

Among them: the botched Millennium Dome heist, a six-month animal rights case – and a man accused of murdering his wife, burying her in the garden and covering the spot with a fish pond.

“He denied that it was him who had done that,” recalls the grandfather-of-two. “But his case was made a bit more difficult by the fact that police interrogated his computer and he had written it all out.

“So many people are caught and eventually convicted because they have made quick phone-calls,” he added. “They will say, ‘No, I wasn’t there’. ‘Well, phone records says you were there’. ‘Ah’.”

An argumentative temperament as a young boy steered Mr Cherrill towards the law, which he studied alongside classics at Cambridge. At first he worked in London magistrates’ courts at the rate of five guineas a pop, with lots of traffic cases.

He came to Brighton in 1965 after spotting an advert in the Evening Standard newspaper for a “flat overlooking the sea for about £4 a week”.

“That just shows you how ancient I am,” he said.

“Initially I would commute every day to the Middle Temple and then I came to meet some very good local solicitors who had lots of criminal cases. My practice gradually increased to be a local Sussex one.”

Mr Cherrill was drawn to criminal law early on in his career. “I suppose for the human side,” he said. “And I love the law itself in crime – the constructs, the mixture of case law, and the way it has evolved over centuries.”

Five years ago he joined Westgate Chambers, almost opposite Lewes Crown Court, doing about half and half prosecuting and defending. Does it bother him to defend people who are probably guilty?

“You have to suspend judgment and wait and see how the evidence pans out,” he said. “But defending somebody you think is probably guilty is nothing like as difficult as defending somebody you think is innocent. That is pressure.

“It is very worrying because you just don’t want to be the instrument of somebody being wrongly convicted.”

This week his chambers, of which he “cannot speak highly enough”, will host a party to celebrate his 50 years as barrister. He has no plans to retire.

The anniversary comes at a critical time for the justice system, with many barristers and solicitors fighting government cuts to legal aid.

“It’s depressing,” he said of the cuts. “Certainly a lot of colleagues who are doing family work are saying that people who want to get rulings in family matters don’t get legal aid. So if they can afford it, fine, but most of them can’t.

“They have to go along themselves and have no idea what the rules are, and what do you think happens? It all slows to a grinding pace. Do you think that saves money? I don’t think so.”

The Government has also announced plans to close Eastbourne magistrates’ and Chichester crown courts, having already closed Lewes and Mid-Sussex magistrates’ courts. Lewes has now been knocked down to be replaced by a Premier Inn.

The Government says those courts are underused – but Mr Cherrill, who also lives in Lewes, is among many who disagree.

“That is simply not true,” he said. “I go to Chichester a lot and it is a lovely court with some lovely people and very good judges and it is always busy.

“The Lewes combined court centre includes Brighton and Hove and most of the time they are also extremely busy.

“Another example of non-joined up thinking is the opening [here] by Princess Diana of a magnificent magistrates’ court and today you look at it and about three or four bricks are left.

“What it means is that people from Lewes and around who are accused of crimes and so on, or witnesses, will have to travel all over the place.”

Government cuts are not the only changes he has had to adapt to, with a major shift in the type of crime coming to court over his career.

“It used to be good old fashioned robberies, glassings in pubs,” he said.

“Now more than 60 per cent of cases are allegations of sexual abuse. There are times when I do four or five cases, one after the other, which are all allegations of sexual abuse.

“Quite often they are historic. All sorts of defendants, usually within the family: Often uncles, fathers, grandfathers, even the great grandfather.

“And people say, ‘how do you live with that?’ But you learn to compartmentalise your brain because if you didn’t, if you allowed these things to occupy your thoughts, you would go stark raving mad.”

Mr Cherrill puts the increase in such cases down to high-profile incidents, such as the Jimmy Savile case which has encouraged other victims to come forward.

But, he said the cases are difficult as often the evidence is one person’s word against another’s. “That is why I think the conviction rate for rape is still pretty low.”

His own style of advocacy has also changed over the years, but through pragmatism more than mellowing.

“I used to be quite aggressive and pretty terse and feisty,” he said.

“But my style has changed with the maturity that I have experienced, and I think it is more successful.

“If you start thinking I am going to fight everything here, it is not always the best way.

“Judges used to be a lot more hostile and a lot grumpier. That has changed, with some honourable exceptions, but very few. The judges here are fantastic, they are a really good, fair bunch.”

Mr Cherrill faced one of his biggest tests while prosecuting the longest-running case in Lewes, a six-month case in 2001 against animal rights activists accused of arson.

“The first witness was cross-examined for a month and there were about six defendants and lots and lots of aspects to it,” he recalled.

“There were some very fertile minds among those defending. They explored every aspect. It was fascinating.”

Mr Cherrill got his convictions, although the defendants later won an appeal on grounds that the wrong charges had been brought.

“It was a bit galling that all that effort had come to that,” he recalled.

Later, he defended Kevin Meredith, then 35 and of Auckland Drive, Brighton, who drove the intended getaway speedboat in the foiled attempted robbery of diamonds from the Millennium Dove.

Meredith was cleared of conspiracy to rob, but convicted of conspiracy to steal – a lesser charge.

“The defence that was run was that he was under duress and there was a degree of threat. The jury must have thought there was something in that,” Mr Cherrill recalled.

While he finds his work fascinating, he is also aware that he has people’s lives in his hands.

“I try not to lose sleep over it,” he said, “but I do quite often wake up in the middle of the night and the brain has been ticking away thinking about a case.

“And sometimes you come up with answers that have not appeared during conscious hours.

“I am very lucky and privileged to be working in a job where there are important things taking place and I do my best to live up to the responsibility.

“If you think somebody should be convicted and is convicted then there is a sort of satisfaction there, but no exaltation.

“And if they are acquitted in the teeth of the evidence, which can happen, then you think ‘How could I have done it better?'.”