Book Review – Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself by Sally Smith

2 July 2016 by


Owain Thomas QC reviews this new book by 1 Crown Office Row’s own Sally Smith QC.

Sally Smith’s wonderful new biography of the great Edwardian advocate Edward Marshall Hall is the first reappraisal of his life and career since the celebrated biography by Marjoribanks, published only two years after his death. Since then the worlds of law, journalism, celebrity, and crime have become intertwined in so many complex ways, but Smith charts in this book the quite remarkable public life of the era’s most sought after barrister. He attained celebrity beyond the dreams of even the most fervent publicity hungry barrister. His cases were regularly front page news. Because of the deliciously lurid subject matter some might have got there anyway, but his name added a lustre and whetted the public appetite for the scandal to come with the promise of a coup de théâtre. Thousands waited for the verdicts outside the Old Bailey.

However, there was more to Marshall Hall than the thirst for publicity. He undoubtedly courted the press and revelled in its attentions; why else compile a set of press clippings running to many volumes? But underneath the ersatz glamour of upper class infidelity, debauchery and murder, Marshall began to engage with the deeper problems to which the law seeks imperfectly to find answers. His cases spanned the emergence of forensic science and the dubious credibility lent to pet theories by dodgy experiments and the testimony of experts. He brought an iconoclastic approach to the cross examination of many of the most eminent scientific experts of the day. His complete absorption in capital murder cases was surely something to do with the problematic nature of capital punishment. The certainty of the sentence contrasted with the messiness of ordinary life and early experiences in his life which led him to the conclusion that even the most open and shut case might have hidden uncertainties. He struggled too with how the law treated mental illness. In the days before the sophisticated diagnostic systems we have today he battled valiantly for reform of how the criminal law treated the “insane”. So many of the issues which preoccupy legal debate nowadays (apart from perhaps, Brexit) find their reflection, at least to some extent, in the cases he fought and (mostly) won. Among them the right to privacy and how to balance it against the public’s right to know. These themes are woven finely through Sally Smith’s page-turning accounts of his most famous cases.

Much has been written about his perorations, his genius as a jury advocate, his brusque confrontations with unhelpful (or downright antagonistic) judges, but it is all put into context in this book: in the context of the age, of the law, of the prevailing norms of public morality and in the context of the private life of a barrister, politician and Edwardian gentleman. The result is a meticulously researched yet compelling tale of a career in the law like none before or since. It is written in a style which allows the reader to experience what it must have been like to follow these extraordinary trials spiced with the sort of melodrama which we would confidently ascribe to the realm of fiction. The Brides in the Bath, the Green Bicycle murder, the Murder at the Savoy seem like detective novels avant la lettre, but thanks at least in part to Marshall Hall they have come to typify the quintessential English murder.

The book is a complete triumph; as interesting to students of the law and advocacy as to those whose interest lies in historical biography or Edwardian history.

“Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself” by Sally Smith QC is published by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill and is available now. 

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