Ornery Lion of the Law

“How does a lawyer sleep?”

“—First he lies on one side and then on the other.”

Ugh what an unfunny joke, you say. Well we non-lawyers have to vent our feelings about lawyers somehow.

Actually there’s at least one lawyer who conquers the layman’s cynicism about the profession. He isn’t an American or even a real person. He is Rumpole of the Bailey, the creation of the late British writer John Mortimer. A new audiobook edition of Rumpole is out, with the wonderful actor Tony Britton reading the stories in Mortimer’s 2001 collection, Rumpole Rests His Case.

Listening to these stories is a balm to the spirit. It’s not easy to make the rule of law come alive, or to make us feel wonder that we have it, but Mortimer’s writing (as voiced by Britton and, before him, as acted by Leo McKern in the 1978-1992 BBC television series) does that for me. Horace Rumpole is old and tired. He’s sarcastic. He’s getting grief from the higher-ups in his chambers, and also from She Who Must Be Obeyed (his wife, Hilda). But he would never not show up for work. He finds nothing more bracing than to snatch a bit of justice from a creaky court system and the utterly flawed human beings who make up that system.

At the Old Bailey—the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales—a protégé of his puts it this way: “You’re a taxicab, Rumpole! You’re committed to giving a ride to anyone who hails you.” And the clients Rumpole doesn’t like, he defends even better, since he can “see all the dangerous points against them.”

If it weren’t such an overworked term at the moment, it would be tempting to call Rumpole anti-Establishment. His father-in-law having been a judge, his wife is disappointed that he hasn’t tried to ascend the judicial ladder or win some other impressive governmental post. The prospect leaves him cold. The last thing he would enjoy would be, for example, toiling away in the Home Office. He says: “That gloomy institution, dedicated to cracking down on Magna Carta, the Presumption of Innocence, the right to cross-examine or any other available aid to a fair trial, seemed to me to be shrouded in perpetual darkness.”

Defending people accused of common crimes is more his style. The self-described “Old Bailey hack” loves to sway juries to his side; to quote Wordsworth, Rossetti, and lewd sea chanties; to drink his favorite Château Thames Embankment at his favorite haunt, Pommeroy’s Wine Bar; and to grumble about life’s discomforts.

Many of these are caused by his fellow man. He exercises his wit on the politically correct and the killjoys—like the non-smokers—who seem to go out of their way to make trouble for a normal person. When he wants a smoke, he has to stand outside his chambers in Equity Court. He shelters under the arches to keep out of the cold London drizzle, his mind running to his younger, cleaner-living colleagues, one of whom “blamed my cheroots for the fact that his aunt had been flooded out by a climate change in Surrey.”

In court, the barrister enjoys antagonizing the judges—most of whom are officious blockheads strongly biased against the accused—but there are times when he is not the happy warrior. In “Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf” he has the delicate task of cross-examining a young woman who was assaulted:

There are certain cases undertaken by a criminal defender in which, on entering Court, you feel you’ve stepped into a giant refrigerator into which you’re shut, freezing, for the rest of the trial. The cold winds of disapproval howl at you from all sides and every time you stand up you feel as if you are clearly identified as a septic sore on the body of the nation, closely related to the alleged sex offender in the dock.

The young man he gets off the hook for the assault had been falsely accused. In other cases, he’s none too sure—nor is he very interested in knowing whether—his client is innocent of the charges. The rationale behind the Anglo-American system is highlighted in Rumpole’s attitude: It isn’t an inclination to excuse crime. It’s a protective stance born of the fact that the authorities could easily crush the accused whether he is guilty or innocent. What it’s about is keeping the burden of proof in the proper quarter, not moral relativism.

That said, the “Old Bailey hack” in some respects qualifies as what we in America call a liberal. Or, better said, his creator John Mortimer seems to be. Mortimer has given Rumpole an instinctive dislike of Tories, finding them self-righteous and hypocritical. The head of chambers, Rumpole’s colleague Sam Ballard, is a “leading light of the Lawyers as Christians” who pretends to be upstanding but is really a creep. Americans are depicted in the stories as vapid. Rumpole is ostentatiously pro-immigrant, and pretty anti-capitalist around the edges.

And yet all of this is balanced by what we might call Rumpole’s Burkean side. He’s a realist about a lot of things. He comes to recognize there are “bad apples” among the immigrants who take advantage of the vulnerable in their communities.

A British liberal of the old school, too, is bound to feel respect for the social and cultural aspects of the Church even if he rarely attends services anymore. There’s a wonderful scene with Mr. and Mrs. Rumpole in a freezing and drafty church at Christmastime, with Horace feeling alienated from the preacher’s homily but gratefully hugging “a huge, friendly, gently humming, occasionally belching radiator” for warmth.

Nor does the traditionalist in him mind wearing the costume required by his job. In fact he’s fond of “my gown, which was ever in danger of coming apart at the seams, and my wig, which has long since lost its whiteness and achieved the respectably yellowish tinge of old parchment.”

There’s a lot of charm to be found in a traditionalist-rebel or rebel-traditionalist. Serenity somehow resides with fierceness. Most compelling of all, Rumpole does not like to be thought of as a respecter of the rules—not, anyway, the rules he considers petty (no smoking in chambers)—but in the larger sense, the rules are everything to him.

A man accused of murdering his wife asks Rumpole if he is a religious believer like he, the defendant, is. The question makes the barrister uncomfortable. He barely answers. Inwardly, he takes stock of such certainties as he does swear by:

My creed included a simple faith in trial by Jury and the presumption of innocence. The eleventh commandment was, “Thou Shalt Not Plead Guilty.” I had a faint hope that the Day of Judgment, if there was ever to be a Day of Judgment, would not entail a day in Court as ferocious and unjust as a bad time before Judge Bullingham down the Old Bailey.