Sitting it out

Paul Sieghart

  • Two men were aquitted by Percy Hoskins
    Secker, 221 pp, £9.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 436 20161 5

The trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams at the Old Bailey in 1957 was one of the causes célèbres of the post-war years. Apart from sex, it had everything. Adams was a fashionable Eastbourne doctor. Portly. With a chauffeur-driven Rolls. Charged with murdering one of his rich old women patients, for a chest of silver. There were strong hints she was not his only victim. The Attorney-General prosecuted in person. The press had a field day. And Percy Hoskins, doyen crime reporter of the Daily Express, was there. Covering a story in which he himself had played no mean part. He didn’t believe in the Doctor’s guilt. But Beaverbrook, his proprietor, evidently did. If the story had gone wrong, it could have broken Hoskins. Roughly, that is the style in which this book is written. Plain. Direct. Hard-hitting, now that both the Doctor and Hoskins’s main villain, Superintendent Herbert Hannam of the Yard, are safely dead. It quickly becomes infectious. And if you like the pace of crime reporting in the popular press enough to put up with this continuous burst of machine-gun fire over more than two hundred pages, you will like the book. But even if you do not, it is still worth reading, for it gives a vivid account of a case that had more than one layer. The layer the public saw is the one Hoskins reports. Its catharsis came in the great battle of the legal and medical giants at the Old Bailey. In a trial for murder by poisoning, it was the tradition that the Attorney-General himself should lead for the prosecution. In the other corner, Adams was represented by Geoffrey Lawrence QC, one of the most skilful advocates of his day, whose normal practice lay in the civil rather than the criminal courts. Not for him the faded Rumpole clichés of ‘I am bound to put it to you, Mr Snooks, that what you are telling My Lord and the jury on your sacred oath in this court is a tissue of lies’: his cross-examinations, especially of the prosecution’s forensic experts, were meticulously planned, cool, subtle and ultimately deadly. The transcripts became coveted possessions at the Bar, cherished as paradigms of the art from which youngsters were encouraged to learn how the real masters did it.

Lawrence and his client also had more than the usual share of luck. Nurses who gave damning evidence of the drugs which the Doctor was said to have administered to his patient were shattered when the defence presented them with their own contemporary notebooks, recording a very different story. An Eastbourne commuter heard one of them say to the other on the morning train on their way to the Old Bailey, ‘Don’t you say that, or you’ll get me into trouble,’ and conscientiously reported it to the defence, so that Lawrence was able to use it to damning effect on the same day. Lawrence took one huge gamble: he decided not to put his client into the witness box. The real reason for that lies in a deeper layer of the case which Mr Hoskins, as a fervent believer in the accused’s innocence, is apt to play down. For, though the Doctor was not a murderer, he was a pretty unsavoury character in some other ways – including forged prescriptions and certificates, and illicit trading in heroin and morphia, for which he was later convicted and struck off the register for four years.

The Attorney-General did his best with a case that was coming apart at all the seams, and no one could properly have criticised his conduct at the trial. But beneath all that, there was yet another layer. Unreported at the time or in this book, another battle of the giants was going on, of which the Bodkin Adams case gave only the odd glimpse to those who knew of it. It centred on the high office of Lord Chief Justice, a key appointment in the crucial sector of the non-political higher judiciary. The office had been held since 1946 by the redoubtable Lord Goddard, much maligned in his later days, and even more after his death. Rayner Goddard was born in 1877: he grew up not as an Edwardian but as a Victorian. He believed in righteousness, honour and integrity, and provided it met these criteria, he believed in the authority of the law, which he exercised freely. He was both an excellent lawyer and the archetypal plain man, with little patience for fools and none at all for knaves. He might have become a reactionary stereotype in his old age, but for two saving graces: a passionate concern for the humble citizen and his freedom, and a remarkable openness of mind. The first showed itself in a suspicion of all government, and especially in contempt for petty bureaucrats: few people now remember that it was Goddard’s court which abolished identity cards in the case of Wilcock v. Muckle in 1951, when the Government wanted to keep them in issue long after the end of the wartime emergency that had brought them in. The second kept him a modern man to the end of his days, for all his Victorian formation, short temper and authoritarian bearing – always up to date with current events, and receptive to new ideas.

It was not in Goddard’s nature to make a secret of his dislikes, and among them the most notorious was his distaste for Her Majesty’s Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller Bart, a massive figure universally known behind his back as Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner. Where Goddard was an old-fashioned Whig, Buller was an old-style High Tory. Goddard believed in the God-given liberties of the subject, Buller in the God-given mission of government. Buller was an indifferent lawyer, and had never had much of a practice: his talents lay largely in the less subtle field of party politics. As the owner of substantial tracts of Northamptonshire, he had one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, and was in a position to deliver several more if he put his mind to it. And, as Harold Macmillan’s hatchet man, he was renowned for his ruthlessness. Like Goddard, he had indomitable courage. But he lacked the gift of evoking admiration for it: on the contrary, he displayed an unfailing capacity for making enemies. According to his Times obituarist, he was underrated and misunderstood, which may well be true. He was certainly hard-working, relentless, and a man of principle. Perhaps the fairest one-liner, coined when he was still only Solicitor-General, was that his mind was a very blunt instrument which could sometimes be found pointing in the right direction.

Whatever the true merits of these two mastodons, one thing was clear: Goddard had no time at all for Buller. The feeling may well have been mutual. At that time there were those who held the view that the Attorney General of the day was entitled, by convention, to the reversion of the Lord Chief Justice-ship if that office happened to fall vacant and he wanted it. Whether such a convention in truth ever existed is open to doubt, but there could be no doubt that Sir Reginald firmly believed that it did. Knowing that Macmillan was much in his political debt and that Goddard was already 77 when Buller was appointed Attorney, he hung on to his office, waiting for Goddard’s death or retirement. But Goddard had no intention of vacating his office by either of these means so long as there was the slightest risk that Buller might fill it. Having failed to receive any binding assurance that he would not, Goddard also stayed where he was. At that time, there was no statutory retiring age for judges, and both his health and his intellect remained singularly unimpaired. For year after year, Goddard and Buller grimly sat it out.

It was in the middle of this deadlock that the Bodkin Adams case hit the headlines. At the preliminary committal proceedings in Eastbourne Melford Stevenson QC led for the prosecution. Such a brief comes on the personal nomination of the Attorney-General, and Buller and Stevenson were known to have been close friends since their time together in the Judge Advocate General’s office during the Second World War. Stevenson’s conduct of those proceedings came in for a good deal of adverse comment at the time. One has to remember the old established rule of the Bar that it is not prosecuting counsel’s job to try to obtain a conviction: his function is to put all the facts fairly before the court, test the evidence that is led by the defence, and leave justice to run its course. In particular, a prosecutor must be scrupulous to avoid the introduction of any evidence – let alone statements not supported by evidence – which will merely serve to create prejudice against the accused, rather than show that he committed the crime with which he is charged. Before the Eastbourne magistrates, Bodkin Adams was charged with only one murder, that of his patient Mrs Morell. Yet, although the proceedings were conducted in public, Stevenson introduced two other alleged murders in his opening speech which had nothing at all to do with her, and about which he was not intending to put any evidence before the court. At the end of a long and highly prejudicial description of those alleged crimes, he said: ‘And that brings us at long last to the evidence in this case.’ He then proceeded to call no fewer than 40 witnesses – all of them relating only to the death of Mrs Morell.

Needless to say, this prejudicial material filled the national newspapers, reviving a vicious witch-hunt against the Doctor which the press – with the creditable exception of Michael Foot’s Tribune and Percy Hoskins’s Express – had already run before his arrest. Every potential juror in the country must have come away with the impression that Bodkin Adams was a mass murderer. The Lord Chief Justice was seething, and was heard to mutter out loud about what he called ‘a hatchet job for that damned Attorney’. Clearly, he could not influence the outcome of the trial, nor would he have done if he could. But there was one thing he could do, and that was to nominate the trial judge. His choice was inspired: he decided to send Mr Justice Devlin to the Old Bailey for that session.

Patrick Devlin had been an outstanding practitioner at the commercial Bar, his manner about as remote as it could be from the fashionable knock-about jury practice of Melford Stevenson, or the political world of Manningham-Buller. Devlin had been appointed to the High Court Bench at the unbelievably early age of 43. Courteous but reserved, he never gave any overt indication of what he thought of anyone else personally, but one could be sure that on principle he would share Goddard’s disapproval of the prosecution’s conduct of the Bodkin Adams committal proceedings. Without a judge of Devlin’s calibre, Geoffrey Lawrence might have found the Adams trial even more difficult than he did. But Devlin’s scrupulous fairness and incisive intellect gave Lawrence the opportunities he needed. More than once, it was the judge who administered the coup de grâce to a prosecution witness whose credibility Lawrence had undermined, but not yet quite destroyed.

When it came to warning the jury not to allow themselves to be prejudiced by what they had read in the newspapers about the committal proceedings, Devlin included a telling phrase: ‘I should like to say this,’ he said, ‘and I say it with the approval of the Lord Chief Justice ... I think it would have been wiser in this case if the preliminary hearings before the magistrates had been held in private.’ Those proceedings, he continued, ‘were quite different from the proceedings as they emerged in this court ... If you have not learned to distinguish ... between what is evidence and really proves something, and what is mere suspicion, gossip, and of no value whatsoever, then ... you would have learned nothing.’ The rest of the summing-up was impeccably even-handed. But almost at the end, there came the following remarkable passage:

  I daresay it is the first time you have sat in that jury box. It is not the first time I have sat in this chair. Not infrequently, I have heard a case presented by the prosecution that seemed to be manifestly a strong one. And sometimes, I have felt it my duty to tell the jury so. I do not think, therefore, that I ought to hesitate to tell you that here, the case for the defence seems to me a manifestly strong one.

The jury took the hint, and threw the case out after retiring for a mere 44 minutes, at the end of a trial that had lasted 17 days. In Beaverbrook’s words, ‘two men were acquitted’: Adams was saved from the gallows, and Hoskins from the sack. For Manningham-Buller it was a stinging humiliation, and probably put paid to any prospects he might still have had of being appointed Lord Chief Justice of England. In his room back at the Law Courts, Goddard must have chuckled loud and long.

That still left quite a few loose ends for tying up. The first round went to the Buller faction: just six months after the verdict, Melford Stevenson was appointed to the High Court Bench. But exactly a year later, Rayner Goddard, now a hale 81, was at last able to retire, secure in the knowledge that his successor was to be Hubert Parker, a much-respected and wholly unpolitical Lord Justice of Appeal. When the new Lord Chief Justice first took his seat, it fell to Sir Reginald, as Attorney-General, to welcome him on behalf of the Bar. To his credit, he made a gracious and generous speech. The fact that, in the very next year, he found himself presenting to Parliament a Bill to impose a compulsory retirement age of 75 on the upper judiciary may well have had nothing to do with his recent disappointments: but there were some who could not help feeling that his government was displaying just a slightly indecent degree of haste. In the event, Buller had to wait another six years before being elevated to the Bench as Lord Chancellor – the highest judicial office in the country, though by then long since accepted as an overtly political appointment. Selecting the style and title of Viscount Dilhorne – which the ribald Bar swiftly converted to Lord Stillborn – he graced the Woolsack for a brief two years, until the 1964 Election.

Devlin’s meteoric rise continued: he went to the Court of Appeal in 1960, and to the House of Lords in the very next year, still only 55. But he retired after only three years there, evidently bored with the Bench. In 1965, Geoffrey Lawrence, too, became a High Court judge. Tragically, he died only two years later. (That neither of these were Lord Chancellor Dilhorne’s appointments will come as no surprise.) In 1967, the law was at last changed to ensure that committal proceedings could not be reported in the press without the accused’s consent. Goddard, still alive and thoroughly on the ball, was delighted. Three years later, at 92, he was seen on two sticks in St James’s Street buying claret, ‘for laying down, of course’. He died peacefully in the following year. Our system for making judicial appointments is very closed, and sometimes moves in mysterious ways. Most of the time, it gets things roughly right. On this occasion, it just skirted a major pitfall – with the unconscious help of, among others, the late Dr John Bodkin Adams, and his doughty supporter Percy Hoskins.