On the bench

For the last few days I’ve been reading “Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories”, a biography of sorts of one of the most celebrated defence lawyers of the last century.  (He’s still  alive, and turned 102 this year.) One chapter is devoted to the Lady Chatterley Trial, in which Hutchinson represented Penguin Books. (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read the novel – I don’t remember getting past the first couple of chapters, but I’m now determined  to have another go.)  Apart from all the sparring over the number of four-letter words, one of the weirdest passages is devoted to a courtroom convention that I had no idea existed: the judge, a devout Catholic who was thought to be very much on the side of the prosecution, actually had his wife sitting next to him.

To modern eyes, it is an extraordinary fact that Byrne was joined on the bench by his wife, Lady Byrne, who remained there throughout the trial. Jeremy explains that it was at the time unremarkable for judges to be sometimes accompanied by their wives, or even on occasion a friend, though it is baffling that this judge should want to subject his wife to the salacious material that the trial would inevitably rake over. Perhaps Mr Justice Byrne hoped that no jury would dare acquit in the face of her moral authority. Jeremy remembers Lady Byrne, seated beside her husband with her arms crossed, glaring down at him, a grim and disapproving spectator.

We tend to assume, looking back, that the verdict was a foregone conclusion. That wasn’t how it looked at the time, apparently. Quite a few observers – Sylvia Plath and Philip (“1963”) Larkin among them – thought Penguin were going to lose. The judge certainly wasn’t pleased with the way it went:

There was applause and cheering in the public gallery when the verdict was announced: “Not guilty!” The judge, his icy composure undisturbed, expressed his displeasure  by refusing, without giving reasons, Gardiner’s application for costs on behalf of Penguin. At the end of a trial it is usual for the judge to express his gratitude to the jury for their patience and attention. As he and Lady Byrne left the court he merely stared at them.

There’s more on the famous duel between the prosecution and Richard Hoggart, over at Robert Sharp’s blog.

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