Book review: Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself

 Author: Sally Smith QC 
Publisher: Wildy, Simmonds & Hill
Hardcover: 302 pages 
ISBN-13: 978-0854901876
Price: £25.00
 

Sally Smith QC’s biography of the legendary Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC gives a remarkable insight into the character and make up of one of the most formidable advocates of all time. A Law Unto Himself examines Marshall Hall’s early life, giving clues as to how early set-backs, disappointments and personal tragedy helped mould his strengths as a barrister.

What Marshall Hall lacked in legal learning was more than made up for by his complete commitment to the cause, his win-at-all-costs attitude and his disregard for the judiciary and the finer points of convention that bound many of his colleagues. After exploring his early formative life, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster ride through the career and personal life of a showman whose oratory and instinctive nose for a defence saved more people from the gallows than any other barrister in history.

Inevitably, such a colossus had his own weaknesses – and Marshall Hall was no exception. Insecure, self-indulgent, reckless, he was also big hearted, loyal and fearless in the cause of his clients.His instinctive compassion for the underdog and the disadvantaged helped shape the thinking of the time and ultimately led to a change in the law of diminished responsibility and provocation – and paved the way to the introduction of an offence of infanticide.

When Marshall Hall began in practice in the late 19th century, women were not able to serve on juries and defendants were unable to give evidence in their own defence. Legal representation was poor or non-existent and punishments ranged from floggings, hard labour and hanging.

Marshall Hall soon achieved a celebrity status unheard of before or since; his every word reported in the press. Such was the reverential tone used to describe his outstanding ability, it was even suggested that advance reporting of some of his trials could amount to a contempt of court. Although a tireless defender, his own personal life was far from blameless and he apparently had countless affairs. An avid antique collector and dealer, his fortune fluctuated along the way and on more than one occasion he was involved in personal scandal and controversy.

His trials read like stories from Agatha Christie. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the psychology of jury advocacy and is compulsive reading. Once started, it is impossible to put down.

Reviewer Philip Noble, Thomas More Chambers

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