From “CASES IN COURT”
by Patrick Hastings, K.C.
First published November 1949.
‘Dedicated to the Middle Temple, and to the memory of the late Theobald Mathew, esq.
LIFE takes a very long time, but there is no possible excuse for anyone who finds it dull. To be a bore may be a misfortune for which others will be compelled to suffer, but to confess to boredom should be made a criminal offence. To anyone who is fortunate enough to be obliged to earn his own living and is wise enough to select an occupation he enjoys, there will be no time for boredom; such a state of mind can exist only in a person who is engaged, either in doing nothing, or else in doing something which is not and never was worth doing at all. None but a fool tries to advise another in his choice of a profession: each must decide for himself, and the decision is far from easy. It may have to last him all his life. It may even be better to starve at work you love rather than to earn all the money in the world at work you hate.
I have been very fortunate. Nearly half a century ago I chose to be a member of what is perhaps the greatest profession in the world, and during all that time I cannot look back upon one moment when I was bored. I cannot remember one day which was not tinged with some element of adventure, either of hope or disappointment, of failure or achievement. I entered the Middle Temple filled with the most glorious anticipation: I was not disappointed. It would be indeed an ungrateful spirit that could find no word of gratitude for the memories that he has left behind, and no word of encouragement for all who will come after him.
So long as civilisation continues, English justice will remain the admiration of the world, and English justice could never have reached the position which it now enjoys without independence and above all the inflexible honesty of the English Bar. No statute controls its activities ; it knows no master but itself ; it knows no rules except those handed down by centuries of tradition, and those rules are very simple : to the client whom he represents an advocate owes a duty to act with fearless independence; to the Court before whom he appears he owes the honesty in all that he says and does. If he fails in either of those duties he will sink into well-deserved oblivion ; if he maintains the tradition which he has inherited he will have earned his place upon an honoured roll. In years to come will the Bar still occupy the rich position that it now enjoys? Will it still offer to young men of limitless enthusiasm an opportunity to fulfil their high hopes and ambitions? Personally I think it will. In a world temporarily torn by new ideals and great uncertainties, it is only natural that people should grope blindly for some change in their conditions, but there is one thing that will never change, and that is the English sense of justice. With all its possible defects, English justice is the best thing that is left to us. If I could give one word of advice to the great minds who will be chosen to control our destinies, I would suggest to them that, with all the changes they will be called to make, they should leave our Law alone.
Minor improvements and reforms will develop automatically and if they do not do much good, at any rate they will not do much harm. But fundamentally our Law is built on a sound foundation. Let it remain there.
A little more than 100 years ago mean were hanged for stealing sheep, and lesser felons were transported beyond the seas.
These unpleasant happenings called for great reforms, it was a period of great reforms ; everybody decided to reform something ; novelists declaimed passionately against injustice: legal anachronisms were exposed, and the whole practice of the law was overhauled. Most of the changes were for the public good and some of them were long overdue ; it is only within the last century that a prisoner has been permitted to give evidence upon his own behalf, in consequence of which permission many a murderer has stepped joyfully into the witness box and by his own eloquence has promptly hanged himself. No doubt he is among the first to appreciate the improvement in our legal system. For my part, the greatest change that I have noticed during the past forty years lies amongst members of my own profession. Ponderous oratory, once so popular, and based undoubtedly upon Cicero’s orations, has completely disappeared. Just as Gerald du Maurier sounded the death knell of the old-time school of thunderous declamation from the stage, so Edward Carson put an end to forensic platitudes and passionate but irrelevant perorations from the Bar. That such a change is an improvement no wearied juryman would deny. Yet there is one change that has been forced upon us, and it comes not from within the legal system but from without : the public are beginning to lose interest in the Law. Important as it is that justice should be done, and still more so that justice should appear plainly to be done, the most important element of all is that the Law should appear to everyone as their one protector against most if not all their social ills. And how can that be made apparent unless a true picture of its working can be brought before their eyes!
Not very long ago, every trial of the slightest interest was reported in the public Press. Morning papers had a page devoted to Law reports ; evening papers displayed posters announcing every detail of so-called important trials and possibly even of the persons mainly concerned ; there were murder cases, libel cases, cases about old ladies disputing over garden walls, even breach of promise cases. Every tribulation known to human life was brought before us and its appropriate remedy displayed. When the Courts were closed, the papers were half empty, and people knew that the silly season had arrived ; something was missing from their daily lives. And how right they were. There are few things more enthralling than a trial in the Law Courts.
However trivial or unimportant may be the issues, to the parties immediately concerned they are vital, and, above all the human troubles that are brought to light, give, perhaps if only for posterity, a real picture of the times at which the trials took place. After all, the libel action of to-day would probably have been a duel a hundred years ago. Now there is a world shortage of all those things to which we have grown accustomed : newsprint is in short supply ; newspapers have been cut down, and law reports have practically disappeared. The public hears no longer of the working of its Courts, so its interest in Law has gone. The pictures of justice working continually to remedy human wrongs and to sustain human endeavour are no longer placed before them ; all that is left behind are memories. That must be my excuse for attempting to record some memories of my own.
It should be so easy for a lawyer to call upon his own recollection, and to select at will those incidents and cases which have most appealed to him ; but it is not. Time has blurred the picture ; even the great figures of his own profession seem to have become merged into one comprehensive whole, and all that he remembers of them is a great friendship and a real affection. The most unlikely faces may stand out most clearly ; great reputations tend to disappear, while a well-timed jest may last for ever. A bishop in his endeavours to persuade a friend of mine to cross-examine a half-witted curate, urged that the case was unimportant and that the remuneration should be correspondingly low. “My dear Bishop,” was the reply, “you do not appreciate the deadly risk that you’re asking me to run in cross-examining this Reverend gentleman. He says that he is the Almighty. Now you don’t believe him and nor do I. But supposing he is right?” Frivolity towards a bishop may not be the attribute of a great lawyer, but what is lost in learning may well be balanced by a twinkling eye. If from the many figures that I know so well there is one who stand out among them all, it is one who was known to few people outside of his profession, but loved by everyone within it ; “a fellow of infinite jest” with a mind that saw humour in everything, and a heart that held sympathy for everyone. I can see him now strolling through his beloved Temple, where he loved to saunter, perhaps arm-in-arm with a distinguished judge, commiserating with him upon the stupidity of the junior Bar, or else sympathising with a member of the selfsame Bar upon the stupidity of judges. No one was too highly placed to be safe from criticism, no one was too lowly for his friendship and encouragement ; many a pompous silk has been chastened and subdued by his caustic comments ; many a quivering junior has been uplifted by his kindly smile. He knew when sorrow was so real that it could best be shared in silence ; when troubles were so imaginary that they could best be laughed away. He had done both to me. “My dear Pat,” he once greeted me, “you look harassed and depressed. Doubtless you must have heard of the conflagration in the chambers of Spitting Joe.” Spitting Joe was a member of the Bar gifted with great enthusiasm but defective teeth, so much so that his opponents were invariably bespattered with moisture when he addressed them. “But be of good cheer. This danger is past. Spitting Joe himself was quickly on the scene, and with a few well-chosen words rapidly extinguished the flames.” Perhaps Theo Mathew did not achieve the great success of others I could name, but then he did not want success ; he was a glorious companion, and will be remembered long after many of his more famous contemporaries are forgotten.
To me he will remain for ever as a living picture of all I have loved best at the Bar.
If it is not the greatest advocates who recur most clearly to the mind, it is not necessarily the most important cases that can be brought back to light. Many are too secret or too intimate ; many are too sad and might cause pain if they were revived. All these must remain for ever locked away. Moreover, purely forensic cases are too dreary and long legal arguments too dull. What is left? Just pictures. In the following pages I have tried to reproduce some trials as I remember them ; not photographic pictures—indeed some remembered cross-examinations are merely an attempt to reconvey the scenes, and not the actual words employed—but pictures of the litigants themselves, just ordinary human beings seeking redress against their wrongs, real or imaginary ; men and women struggling to protect their reputations and perhaps their lives. As memories have they been written ; as such may they be judged.’