Issue 83: Sep 2018
Book Review: Marshall Hall

marshall_hall_book.jpgA Law unto Himself

Hard cover, 302 pages

Author: Sally Smith QC.

Publisher: Wildly, Simmonds and Hill Publishing

Reviewer: Brian Morgan

I start this review with the statement that this is one of the most engaging and entertaining biographies that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have read many lawyers’ biographies including that of Norman Birkett QC when I was very young and even used one of his tactics in an early trial.

I read the earlier biography of Marshall Hall and found it difficult to accept and lacking in many respects.

However, this book has it all.

Even now, I would hope that every person who calls themselves a barrister, knows of Marshall Hall. Yes, he was in some respects, a product of his time. However, like Birkett, he was a consummate Court performer who understood the psychology of persuading a jury.

Hall appeared as senior defence counsel in the most salacious and sensational murder trials following his admission in 1882. Names like, “The brides in the bath”, “The Marie Hermann trial” and “The green bicycle trial” provided headline after headline in the press of the time. His last trial concluded shortly prior to his death.

I have heard it said that there are two types of lawyer: those who study the facts, closely, and let the law look after itself and those who minutely research the law and leave the facts to look after themselves.

Marshall Hall fell clearly into the first of these categories. Even in later life, as perhaps the senior QC in the United Kingdom, he deferred to another silk, junior to him but more learned in the law than himself, to lead in an appeal to the House of Lords in a divorce case.

As with everyone, there were many sides to this man. His treatment of his first wife was kind and considerate, whereas, his treatment of his second wife and their daughter appears from this book to have been less than loving. The fact that he probably had a mistress for much of the time may go some way to explain this.

But we are mainly interested in his abilities as a barrister.

To those who do not know, he is regarded as the wit who responded to a pompous judge’s question about his client, an Irish labourer, “Is your client not familiar with the maxim res ipsa loquitur?” with, “My Lord, on the remote hillside in County Donegal where my client comes from, they talk of little else”.

His closing addresses were charismatic, brought juries to tears and frequently won freedom for his client against all the odds.

On one occasion when addressing, he said, “Members of the jury, I want you to open the gates where this Western woman can go out, not in the dark night of the desert but back to her friends....back to her child”. As he said this, it is claimed that a ray of sun reflected off the sword of justice hanging above the judge’s chair. As it did, he pointed to it and said, “Let this Western woman go back into the light of God’s great Western sun”.

It is difficult today to understand the enormous pressure that defence counsel were under in those days, where one mistake could mean that the client would be executed. I have never forgotten that as a very junior counsel for the Crown in a prosecution, on the finding of guilt of murder, I saw the judge put on the black cap and sentence the recently convicted defendant to death by hanging. At least in that case, it was commuted.

Hall dealt with murder trials with the real risk hanging over him that, unless he succeeded, his client would die. Initially, there was not even any appeal and convicted murderers were executed three weeks after their trial.

This book should be read by all barristers. It would, I suggest, make a classic gift to anyone newly admitted to the bar. My prediction is that people will read it and re-read it again from time to time.

I have nothing but superlatives to offer and I congratulate the author on writing such a wonderful tribute to a complex and brilliant advocate.