Obituary: Lord Devlin
Tuesday 11 August 1992
PATRICK DEVLIN was in 1948, at the age of 42, the youngest High Court judge to be appointed this century. On his premature retirement in 1964 there was speculation that he was disappointed at being passed over first for the position of Lord Chief Justice, when the position went to Lord Parker, and then for Master of the Rolls, when Lord Denning took the post. Not so, said Devlin.
Twenty years after the event, in an interview with Marcel Berlins, Devlin explained: 'I just found it utterly boring. I was extremely happy as a judge of first instance. I was never happy as an appellate judge. I went to the House of Lords from the Court of Appeal thinking it would be better. It was worse. I was lucky: I got several interesting cases. But for the most part the work was dreary beyond belief. All those revenue cases . . .' Lord Reid, himself a former Law Lord, remarked, 'Patrick Devlin could have been the greatest among us,' an opinion which was widely shared in the legal profession.
Devlin retired to the mixed dairy and arable farm in Wiltshire which he had had since the 1940s, and from here maintained a running commentary on the laws and mores of the country; he was, too, in constant demand as the urbane chairman of a number of committees and organisations, and as an arbitrator.
Born in 1905, the son of an architect of Irish origin who settled in Aberdeen, Patrick Devlin was brought up a Roman Catholic and attended Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. One of his brothers was William Devlin, the noted Shakespearean actor. Two of his sisters became nuns and another brother, Christopher, a Jesuit priest. Patrick Devlin himself considered going into the priesthood. While at university he gave up Catholicism, but he was reconciled with the Church in the last days of his life.
Tall, with a pronounced stoop and a mop of hair, Devlin was described once as having a face which 'although arresting does not suggest an intense spiritual life . . . it suggests great intellectual power, great self- control and yet is oddly reminiscent of those prelates in Francis Bacon's paintings caught in a silent scream of despair.'
With the support of an uncle, Devlin read law at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was President of the Union. In 1929 he was called to the Bar (Gray's Inn, of which he became a Bencher in 1947), joining the Western Circuit, and became a 'devil' to William Jowitt, then the Attorney General. With no private means, during the 1930s he built a lucrative commercial practice, said to be worth pounds 15,000 a year, appearing in few of the major criminal cases which would bring an advocate into the public eye. But in his very early days at the Bar, in 1931, he appeared for the Crown, led by H. Du Parcq, in the case of Annie Hearn, who successfully defended a poisoning charge, represented by Norman Birkett. Devlin came close to having to make the closing speech, as Du Parcq collapsed while addressing the jury and the case was adjourned for two hours until he recovered. From 1931 to 1939 Devlin was Prosecuting Counsel to the Mint.
During the war he served in the legal department of the Ministry of Supply and from 1942 to 1945 was Junior Counsel to the Ministries of War, Transport, Food and Supply. He took silk in 1945 and two years later was appointed Attorney General for the Duchy of Cornwall. In 1948 he was appointed to the High Court. In his first few months on the bench Devlin made two rulings of note. In one he held that Leonard Thomas, who had already been sentenced to a term of seven years' imprisonment for wounding his wife Florence with intent to murder her, should stand trial for her murder when she later died. In the second he gave the definition of provocation during the trial of the case of Renee Duffy, accused of murdering her husband. It was described by Lord Goddard in the Court of Appeal as being 'worthy to remain as a classic definition'. Ironically, it is one which is now under siege from those who wish to see it extended.
Devlin was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1960 having, for the previous four years, been president of the Restrictive Practices Court, a tribunal he described as 'then at its nadir'. The following year he was made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and raised to the peerage as Lord Devlin. His retirement, on which he was given a pension of pounds 5,000, followed in 1964.
Devlin will rightly be remembered for his handling of the celebrated Bodkin Adams trial in 1957. It was a case for which he attracted criticism nearly 30 years later, not for his handling of the trial but for his description of it in Easing the Passing (1985). It was unusual, if not unique, for a judge to give such a detailed description of a case he had handled, let alone make what many thought were stringent comments on the handling of the prosecution.
Adams, an Eastbourne doctor, stood trial for the murder of one of his patients from whose will he stood to benefit. The case was the cause celebre of the year, with the Attorney General, Reginald Manningham-Buller, leading for the prosecution. Hindsight shows that the initial police inquiries were not handled with complete skill, nor was Manningham-Buller's conduct of the case, which enabled Geoffrey Lawrence QC, appearing for the defence, to conduct his case without calling Adams.
Devlin made one enormously important statement in his summing-up, one which has been quoted by defending advocates on a daily basis from that day onwards: he emphasised that when a prisoner declined to give evidence it should never be taken to be a sign of guilt. It was seen as a tremendously radical statement, but Devlin was really only restating the law. Parliament had originally permitted a defendant to give evidence because it might help him; but not with the intention that a defendant should feel forced to give evidence for fear that his silence might prejudice a jury against him. Devlin's comments on the Eastbourne magistrates' holding of the committal proceedings in public led to a change in the law which now requires that the detailed reporting of these proceedings can only be at the specific request of the defendant.
Adams was acquitted of murder and on his death nearly 30 years later Devlin published Easing the Passing. In it he viewed the conduct of the prosecution with not a little disdain. Devlin was seen as having broken the ranks and not having followed the de mortuis nil nisi bonum principle which prevailed at the time. He was unrepentant, although he admitted the book contained a 'lack of admiration'.
Indeed it may be that Manningham-Buller and Devlin did for each other politically. Any hope the Attorney General may have had of succeeding Goddard as the Lord Chief Justice died with the acquittal of Adams. The government's rejection, led by Manningham-Buller, of the findings of the 1959 Nyasaland Inquiry Commission, which Devlin chaired, may have sounded his own knell as a Lord Chief Justice or Master of the Rolls, at least under a Conservative administration. The report - based on evidence taken from over 450 individual witnesses and a further 1,300 in groups - vindicated the Governor of Nyasaland's report but did not accept the government's claim that there had been a widespread plot of murder and assassination. The report also challenged the accuracy of statements made in an earlier government White Paper.
As Attorney General, Manningham-Buller wound up the debate, which contained a Labour amendment demanding full acceptance of the commission's report. The Government had a majority of 62. The rejection became something of a family joke. When one of Devlin's sons received a bad school report he urged his father to 'treat it like the Government did your report'.
After his retirement from the bench, Devlin remained Chairman of Wiltshire Quarter Sessions until 1971, while from 1964 to 1968 he was a Judge of the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and chairman of the committee appointed under that organisation to examine complaints concerning the observance by Greece of Freedom of Association and similar conventions. Whilst a judge, Devlin had chaired the committee of inquiry into the Dock Labour Scheme and in 1965 was on the committee of inquiry into the Wages Structure and Level of Pay for Dock Workers, recommending a minimum wage of pounds 15 based on a 40- hour week. He was Chairman of the Press Council for five years from 1964 and two years later was on the Commission of Inquiry into Industrial Representation. In 1970 he headed the CBI inquiry into industrial representation.
In his later years he maintained a strong independent stance against what he saw as oppression and injustice. He argued in general for the abolition of the Lords of Appeal Extraordinary, preferring a Supreme Court with a proper president. He berated the Lords on their decision to give a detailed interim appeal verdict in the Spycatcher case, believing they had prejudiced a fair trial of the main action over the banning of Peter Wright's book. He opposed the ending of the peremptory right to challenge jurors; he defended the freedom of the press in the quarrel between the BBC and the government over the programme The Question of Ulster in 1972, but in turn condemned 'raking up old scandals by newspapers'. He threw his weight behind the campaign for the release of the Maguires and the Guildford Four - criticising the Court of Appeal for what he saw as their usurpation of the function of the jury - as well as for Cooper and McMahon, eventually pardoned after their conviction in the Luton post office murder case of 1969.
In addition to the publication of a number of collections of his lectures, including Trial by Jury (1956), which has become a standard work on the jury system, Devlin also wrote Too Proud to Fight (1974), a biography of Woodrow Wilson. At his death, Devlin had just completed a book on the first 26 years of his life, designed in part for young people going to the Bar. In his youth he was a keen squash and tennis player. He maintained an extensive wine cellar and advised Gray's Inn on their purchases. His favourite author was Jane Austen.
Devlin was a man of the utmost compassion. His much quoted remark, 'Trial by jury is the lamp that shows that freedom lives', given in the 1956 Hamlyn Lectures, could easily be amended with the substitution of 'Devlin' for the word 'jury'.
He married Madeleine, the younger daughter of Sir Bernard Oppenheimer, in 1932. In 1951 she became a lay magistrate and later chairman of her local bench. They had four sons, twin daughters and, by the time Easing the Passing was published in 1985, 21 grandchildren and 'remoter issue' to whom in part the book was dedicated.
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