A Law Unto Themselves
BBC Radio 4
The third in a series of conversations between the barrister Helena Kennedy and eminent lawyers and judges (12 August, 9am) featured the 99-year-old “fighter for justice and liberal causes” Jeremy Hutchinson, who is regarded as one of the great criminal advocates “of his or anyone’s day”.
As whistle-stop tours of a career go, this couldn’t possibly have been more entertaining – it was the radio equivalent of someone standing up and continually pulling £50 notes out of their pockets. A member of the defence team for Penguin Books during the 1960 Chatterley trial, Hutchinson said that his most thrilling moment was calling for “Mr E M Forster . . . and then through the door came this little man in a dirty mackintosh. And I was able to say after asking him his name and address, ‘I think you have written some novels.’”
Once married to the actress Peggy Ashcroft, Hutchinson was known be a dashing, lyrical figure liable to quote poetry. (John Mortimer gave his habit of calling judges “old darling” to Rumpole.) When defending the book The Mouth and Oral Sex against charges of obscenity, the judge asked the witness Margaret Drabble why on earth we needed oral sex, having gone without it for thousands of years. In his closing speech to the jury, Hutchinson mourned, “Poor His Lordship! Poor, poor His Lordship! Gone without oral sex for 1,000 years.”
I loved Hutchinson’s rather bemused, modest laughter on hearing Kennedy recount this. You’d expect someone who was so successful at the bar and later in the House of Lords to have the cold eyes of a seagull, but here was a guy who sounded as though he’d leave a party with a cigarette packet simply covered in phone numbers. The tone, however, shifted when Kennedy asked him how often he had relied on being able to have cases laughed out of court. Suddenly he was a Jesuit among a lot of dissipated cardinals.
“It’s a very dangerous thing to do – because, for a defendant, no case is a laughing matter.” His is a rare voice now: slightly rocking, infinitely rhythmic and with deep reservoirs of equanimity. A voice doing what every great voice does: dissolve all save the ear.