Book review: Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories

Author: Thomas Grant QC
Publisher: John Murray, June 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1444799736
Hardback: £25.00

Since its publication earlier this year, coinciding with Jeremy Hutchinson’s 100th birthday, this book has been well received. However, most reviewers have focused on recounting the most celebrated parts of Hutchinson’s life, along with a handful of lesser-known episodes (such as his candidacy as a Labour MP). Few have paid attention to the care and skill that Thomas Grant QC has applied to his task.

Grant met Hutchinson (or ‘Jeremy’ as he calls him throughout) when he moved to the South Downs a few years ago. He realised that Hutchinson had never written a memoir or been the subject of a biography, and sought to remedy this situation.

Grant brings to bear the forensic detail, dry wit and carefully chosen expressions one might expect of a Chancery barrister, but never gets bogged down by a narrow or overly legal approach to his subject. He simplifies and clarifies a large volume of material. Instead of attempting a potted biography or a survey of his subject’s many cases, he chooses to focus on 14 key trials that Hutchinson was involved in during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These case studies are preceded by a short overview of Hutchinson’s life, from which I learnt, inter alia, that he was the model for the character Rumpole, that his first wife was the actress Peggy Ashcroft, and that his mother was the inspiration for Mrs Dalloway. The book ends with a postscript by Hutchinson himself, offering his take on the modern world, in which he attacks Tony Blair’s hunting ban, discusses his decision to resign from the House of Lords and criticises modern governments’ oppressive terrorism legislation.

Grant teases out some of the components that made Hutchinson such a great advocate, particularly when dealing with the spy cases he took on and the trial of Christine Keeler. These include his use of humility to win over juries (and judges), and his outstanding judgement regarding when and when not to call witnesses, a talent he displayed most conspicuously during the Lady Chatterley trial, when he had to determine which celebrities would best describe the novel as a masterpiece and which would bore the jury.

The book not only details the most memorable and humorous moments of Hutchinson’s advocacy, but also the long hours of preparation he put into cases. So, when cross-examining a customs officer who allegedly saw Howard Marks meeting with two Americans at the Dorchester, Hutchinson soon established that the official’s evidence rested solely on his having apparently seen Marks through the keyhole of the room. Hutchinson duly asked: ‘Ah, so you recognised him by his knees, did you?’ Hutchinson had in fact measured up the room and peered through the keyhole himself. His ability to go the extra mile for clients was not confined to the courtroom. Grant cites several letters between him and clients long after his formal involvement in cases was at an end, many of them written on prison paper.

Grant is strongest when dealing with Hutchinson’s most famous cases: those concerning Lady Chatterley’s Lover, George Blake, the Romans in Britain and Last Tango in Paris, along with others involving Mary Whitehouse and Christine Keeler. He exposes the unfairness and bigotry that lay behind many of the prosecutions with cool irony rather than hot indignation. In some cases, he offers fresh insights into well-known stories, especially when describing Hutchinson’s address to the jury in the Keeler trial. But he also makes passing reference to the smaller cases that made the man, recalling, for instance, the huge weight Hutchinson felt when defending in a magistrates’ court a low-ranking civil servant charged with soliciting in male lavatories, whose career hung in the balance.

While there is a heavy bias towards Hutchinson’s successes, there are references to failures too, such as his inability to prevent racing driver Stirling Moss’s conviction for dangerous driving. Grant also mentions Hutchinson’s refusal to defend the more daring pornographic publications of his day and describes how his characteristic preference to mitigate rather than to seek acquittal did not always pay dividends.

One wonders if the days of figures like Hutchinson, with all his courtroom theatrics, are now over, whether on account of the fact that society has become much more progressive or the depressing cuts facing the criminal Bar. It is fair to say that Hutchinson, with his deeply privileged background and connections (which some critics have suggested Grant overlooks as part of an overly hagiographic portrait), would have been immune to the latter. However, in my view, Hutchinson’s privileged circumstances only served to enhance his ability to take on the establishment and to subvert it successfully from within, a talent which, as his postscript shows, continues in retirement. Indeed, one is left with the distinct impression that, were he at the Bar today, he would be at the forefront of human rights or extradition proceedings, still pushing boundaries.

Reviewer: Joseph England