The sometime wrestler and car dealer Norbert Rondel, who has died aged 81, had an unusual variety of scrapes with the law. The most high-profile court case in which he appeared concerned the so-called Spaghetti House siege of 1975, but before then he had gone all the way to the House of Lords as the plaintiff in the landmark case of Rondel v Worsley in 1969, in which he alleged negligence by his barrister.
In summer 1959, Rondel had been charged with grievous bodily harm following a fight at a dance. He was refused legal aid at the Old Bailey and a young barrister, Michael Worsley, took the case, on what was called a dock brief, receiving £2 4s 6d (£2.23). Found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, Rondel always maintained he had not been properly defended, claiming that he had not cut his victim’s ear, as charged, but merely bitten off part of it, and in 1965 attempted to sue Worsley for negligence. Had the case been tried on its merits, Rondel would have quickly lost, but instead, it was argued on the legal point that a barrister could not be sued for professional negligence.
Rondel appealed, and again legal aid was not available. With the help of a solicitor, the London School of Economics academic Michael Zander, he appeared on his own behalf in the court of appeal. Zander prepared an American-style pleading of the case running to more than 100 pages, but was not allowed to read it to the court. Nor was he allowed to answer submissions made on Worsley’s behalf, and so Zander prepared another statement for Rondel to read out. The court did, however, allow Rondel, a yoga devotee, time out to stand on his head in the corridor to clear his thoughts. Unsurprisingly, he lost, but he earned a small place in legal history when the court said that this lack of representation must not be allowed to happen again.
Rondel appealed to the House of Lords. This time he was fully represented, but their lordships were quite clear that, as a matter of public policy, a barrister could not be sued for negligence. Rondel campaigned for years against the decision but it was not until 2002 that the law was changed to allow litigants to sue barristers who had acted negligently.
The circumstances of his early life are not wholly clear. He was born in Berlin, the son of a Jewish businessman who manufactured kitchenware. His mother died in 1934. His father then effectively abandoned the boy, leaving him behind in Germany when he and the rest of his family emigrated to Palestine. Three years later, just before the second world war broke out, the boy came to Britain through the Kindertransport system, being settled in Manchester where he was educated at the Jewish school and learned to speak English.
For a time he studied to be a rabbi at the Talmudical college in Manchester and then had various labouring jobs before his troubles began again in 1947, when he was bound over by Salford magistrates after being found “wandering abroad”. He was sent to Hampstead under the care of the Jewish Board of Guardians and in June that year, he became a voluntary patient at the Maudsley hospital in south London.
In 1950 he began to work as a gardener for St Pancras council, and the following year, always a fitness fanatic, he became a professional wrestler, taking his mother’s first married name and appearing as Vladimir Waldberg, the Polish Eagle, or, sometimes, as the White Eagle. Unfortunately, Rondel initially did not understand that the idea in professional wrestling – even in the days when so-called “hard holds” were applied – is not to maim your opponent, and it took some harsh lessons from the British champion Bert Assirati to explain this to him.
The 1950s saw the rise of the property entrepreneur Peter Rachman and, along with his friend and fellow wrestler Peter Rann, Rondel took part in evictions of tenants in Notting Hill, west London, whom Rachman wanted out. He claimed later that he did little but watch and smoke cigars but, given his size and appearance, this was probably sufficient intimidation to move the most recalcitrant of tenants.
A month after his release from jail in June 1960, he bit off part of the ear of another Rachman employee. This time he received three years. Through his association with Rachman, Rondel was on the fringes of the Christine Keeler story, and for a time made something of a living selling squibs to the German papers. In 1963 he was acquitted of demanding money with menaces from Serge Paplinski, an Earls Court clubowner. Four years later he served a long period for contempt of court, refusing to apologise for breaking an injunction not to molest Paplinski.
Out of prison, Rondel was also a West End habitué. He replaced Assirati as doorman at the popular club La Discotheque in Wardour Street. He also had his own club, the Apartment, in Rupert Street, and it was there, it was alleged, that he plotted a robbery of the Spaghetti House in Knightsbridge. The prosecution claimed that in settlement of a debt, an associate, Lillo Termine, told him that every Saturday evening the managers of the chain would bring the week’s takings to the premises. Rondel arranged for Franklin Davies, who worked for him, to rob them. In what should have been an uncomplicated heist, one of the managers escaped and the rest were held hostage for 122 hours. Termine and Davies were convicted but, amid unsubstantiated allegations of jury nobbling, Rondel was acquitted.
In later life Rondel, a keen chess player, was a well-known figure in south London, where he bought and sold motor cars. He is survived by two brothers, both of whom live abroad.
Norbert Friedrich Rondel, wrestler and car dealer, born 29 August 1927; died 19 June 2009