Rosalind Wright remembers Dame Juliet Wheldon

Published 30th January 2018
Rosalind Wright CB QC, second woman director of the Serious Fraud Office 1997-2003, remembers Dame Juliet Wheldon (1950-2014) DCB QC, who was Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Service 2000-6.

I first met Juliet when, as a young legal assistant in her first post at the Treasury Solicitor’s Department in the 1970s, she came to see me, together with her line manager, Robert Armitage, who was then in charge of collating evidence for Exchange Control investigations for the Treasury, which we, at the DPP’s Department were charged with prosecuting. I was immediately struck by her evident intelligence and incisiveness as she cut through the persiflage and identified the key issues we would have to prove to get a conviction. I saw her regularly and often after that and we quickly became friends.

She was a brilliant lawyer and, in due course, as she was swiftly promoted, proved an excellent manager and mentor. She was very good at identifying talent in others and saw in Shami Chakrabarti, a junior member of her team at the Home Office, enormous potential and fostered it.

When she became Treasury Solicitor, in 2000, she chaired meetings of heads of government legal departments with vigour, speed and a good deal of humour. She was a polymath, with huge knowledge and interest in music, literature and art and a great love of travel. She was an intrepid traveller, going alone to Iran, when it was hardly safe for a woman to venture there on their own; she took a driver and covered the country; at one stage, picking up a young male hitchhiker who regaled and entertained her for several hours before telling her, as he bade farewell, that he was a member of Hezbollah, the proscribed Arab terrorist organisation.

Her mother was French and she spoke French fluently and taught herself Italian as well. Every new snippet of knowledge intrigued and fascinated her. She had few inhibitions; she was a familiar figure on her old sit-up-and-beg bicycle on which she invariably sped round from meeting to meeting in central London, her black hair flowing out behind her, as did her billowing skirts – she never wore trousers at work.

When I was appointed Director of the SFO, Juliet, then Legal Secretary to the Law Officers rang me to congratulate me and we arranged lunch at a wine bar in Chancery Lane. I arrived there before her (I watched her chaining up the bike outside) and she waved aside the menu, demanding to know what was available for dessert. When the waitress reeled off the various tempting sweets, Juliet said, “Yes, I’ll have them all”. The waitress asked “What, all at once?” and met the sharp retort, “Certainly not; one after the other”, remarking to me, “I can only do this when I go out with another woman; men don’t understand”.

She rang me once for a recipe for a “simple fish pie” and never stood on ceremony. She could be giggly and girlish, but at the same time, she had a sharp tongue and was never reticent in expressing her impatience (I remember her jumping off the slow train back to London from Glyndebourne at Gatwick, much irritated, to take the Gatwick Express, at additional expense, to get home more quickly) or to voice her disapproval of those she felt were unworthy of promotion or reward.

She died a long and painful death from cancer, much too young. She had a lot more to contribute to the profession and to life in general.

About the Author: Ros Wright is the Chairman of the Fraud Advisory Panel. She was Director of the Serious Fraud Office (1997-2003) and was also previously General Counsel and an Executive Director for ten years at the Securities and Futures Authority.