A DEFENCE barrister has criticised a judge's "hostile" questioning of a Kidderminster clergyman accused of a £61,000 theft from a vulnerable friend.

Peter Arnold told a jury that Judge Toby Hooper QC's interventions while the Rev Peter Hesketh was giving evidence were "aggression bordering on rudeness".

He claimed the judge had refused to accept parts of Hesketh's evidence and had then given evidence himself.

"The judge is meant to be impartial,” said Mr Arnold. “The real danger is that the judge's views make it clear which way he's looking at the case.

"Juries don't like people pushing them unfairly. I encourage you to balance this in favour of the defendant."

Hesketh, 65, of The Presbytery, Shrewsbury Road, Kidderminster, denies stealing £61,429 from Peter Court, who ran the Woodman pub in Ribbesford, Bewdley, until dementia overtook him.

The prosecution allege the defendant, a deacon and a former school governor, helped himself to cash from Mr Court's life savings between January, 2006 and May, 2007 after being granted power of attorney.

Father-of-five Hesketh maintains he had a verbal agreement with Mr Court to be paid £20,000 a year to look after his affairs.

Responding to Mr Arnold's criticisms at Worcester Crown Court, the judge agreed he had made "searching and penetrating" interventions during Hesketh's time in the witness box but said they were in response to jurors' questions.

He asked the jury to consider that no "damage" had been done and told jurors not to be distracted from their own focus on the evidence.

He said jurors were the judges of the facts and they must ignore anything he had said if they regarded it as unhelpful.

In his final speech, Mr Arnold conceded that Hesketh had been an unsatisfactory witness. He had "preached" to the jury and had been "a bit glib and over-talkative".

But he said the clergyman saw himself as entitled to the money as recompense for running Mr Court's affairs, including trying to develop the pub site for residential log cabins.

Over a seven-year period, Hesketh had devoted himself to getting the business up and running while Mr Court's family "did all they could to get as much money from the old man and did nothing to help him".

Mr Arnold asked the jury to accept there was an agreement for payments to Hesketh. His work had included looking after accounts, sorting out the winding-up of the pub, buying Mr Court a house in Bewdley, finding a nursing home for him, paying the fees - and even arranging his funeral.

"He had fought that man's corner for years," Mr Arnold said. "Do you think that he would get away with this and no-one would look at the accounts ? A really dishonest man would have drawn up an agreement and got Mr Court to sign it."

Mr Court died in a care home on May 26, 2007 without leaving a will.

The pub site was later developed with log cabins by another family.

Testimonials to Hesketh read out in court described him as honest, compassionate, dedicated to people in need and a man of integrity.

The judge said the jury had to decide what weight they should give the character references and the fact that Hesketh, a former sales manager, had no previous convictions.

The trial continues.