Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself

Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself
Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself
Smith, S
Wildy Simmonds & Hill Publishing

Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC saved more people from the hangman’s noose than any other known barrister.

In an age of inadequate defence funding, minimal forensic evidence, a rigid moral code making little allowance for human passion and a reactionary judiciary, his only real weapons were his understanding of human psychology and the power of his personality.

His charismatic oratory and film star profile made him an Edwardian celebrity. Jurors collapsed and judges wept at the overwhelming power of his performances. Thousands congregated to await the verdicts in the trials in which he appeared for the defence. Curtains were brought down in West End theatres to announce the acquittals he secured.

His famous trials included the Camden Town murder, Seddon the Poisoner, the Brides in the Bath, the Green Bicycle Murder and the Murder at the Savoy. As a result of his oratory in these he was adulated as an entertainer, his performances greeted with the same relish as those by the great actors; but he was also loved as a champion of the underdog, who almost single-handedly introduced compassion in to the Edwardian legal system. No other barrister in any age can claim such celebrity, nor such public adoration and affection.

Meticulously researched, Marshall Hall: A Law unto Himself is the first modern biography of a complex and influential man and, as a result of access to new material:

  • A long awaited Biography - the first for fifty years.
  • Sets the legendary barrister in his social, historical and political context.
  • Reveals the sensational private life of the man behind the public figure, the two turbulent marriages, and the mistresses.
  • Tells the full story of the murder of his first wife.
  • Examines his magnetic oratory and extraordinary fame from a modern perspective.
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An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers

This important biography is a book about yesterday for today’s readers before everything changes with the way we do our legal business.

It’s quite possible that the art of the advocate will be modified again very rapidly in the twenty-first century as we see the creation of new ways to resolve disputes with emphasis on the written word and online decisions.

However, Sir Edward Marshall Hall will always remain top of the advocate’s tree as a man who fitted into a particular part of our more recent legal history during that winding down period of what was a particularly brutal and insensitive judicial past.

Sally Smith QC gives us the twenty-first century view of an Edwardian barrister following on the seminal work from Edward Marjoribanks which people of my vintage read as part of our legal studies decades ago.

Counsel today are not (thankfully) viewed in the same way as they were in the early 20th century. The Bar has rightly moved away from its heavy newspaper emphasis on “celebrity lawyers” in a different media age although we do have a few contemporary contenders whom we all know and love!

The bitchiness and downright hostility and grudge-holding which permeated the Bar of the past are well documented in this thoughtful and well-constructed new biography. Smith has not been constrained by sycophancy which has been the problem of so many biographies when the subject has recently passed on. So we have a reasoned and meticulous analysis for 2016.

That is not to say that Marjoribanks produced a work with only the good points covered because he did not so his work should always be read for the excellent points of advocacy and speech detail covered in 1930s. He had to leave certain matters out which were and remain common knowledge about Marshall within the Bar and made him the man he was. We now have a better picture of Marshall the man thanks to Sally Smith.

I am sure most judges are delighted not to have to sit through a modern day Marshall Hall, if she or he could ever exist now. It’s highly unlikely as they would probably be disbarred if not sent to Coventry pretty quickly if they tried some of the splendid devices Marshall used (which still work, actually, but be very, very careful).

Not everyone can be such a good advocate because one cannot, as Marshall’s life shows, learn such an attribute or facility: it has to be experienced. Yes, experience does count but the very frailty and vulnerability of the human condition makes the successful advocate that very special person who was needed at a time of judicial homicide and massive public interest in capital trials.

Fortunately, we can decline the services, generally, of a modern day Marshall because the sanctions are all most moderate in comparison with his time yet the crimes were just as gruesome. There’s something about a capital trial which is always going to be different and the nearest we get to it today here is the death sentence passed on a pet (non-human) unless one has actually represented parties in capital proceedings abroad.

One can reflect, when reading Sally’s exceptionally crafted account of Marshall’s life, why he was the way he was irrespective of the outcome of his cases and those clients who lied to him: it has happened to all of us, of course.

There is always a bit of Marshall Hall in all of us as advocates even today when we are heavily constrained by what we say and do. The recommendation is that all budding advocates should ensure they read this new well-researched version of Marshall’s life afresh, especially trainee lawyers at any level.

If he was nothing else, Marshall lives as a man with a warning about how we should do things in our forensic world: with care, meticulous planning and checking, relevant specific expertise and a special flamboyance so often sneered at by some both then and now… but it does work!

And this book also works for modern Counsel today and should be compulsory reading for all lawyers and general readers for the future.

Final words are left to Smith at the end of the 19 chapters when she writes that “Marshall was the ultimate exponent of total advocacy: he lived his entire life as though the world was one huge courtroom and its inhabitants a universal jury to beguile. He cared little or nothing for the restraints of his profession, or for the discipline of the law; be he introduced the concept of compassion into a legal system in which it was lacking, was universally adored and trusted by those whom that system is meant to serve, made speeches of such extraordinary power that they have lived on for more than a century and, more important of all, saved many lives. No other lawyer could claim that.”