One of my very favourite writers has died......
Sir John Mortimer, QC, was a mighty legal figure who exercised an enormous, benign and enduring influence over British law.
As a successful and influential barrister, as a warm, funny, and percipient legal commentator, and as the distinguished creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, Mortimer gave more colour and understanding to the public’s perception of law than perhaps any other modern figure.
In the barrister Horace Rumpole, Mortimer created a character who occupies a treasured part of the national consciousness. Although fictional, Rumpole became an icon of English law. Enthusiastic about wine and Wordsworth, Mortimer's creation works dedicatedly for his clients and is never worried about career advancement.
His dicta, including “Never plead guilty!” and “A person who is tired of crime is tired of life”, became famous.
Not only did his writing capture the essential humanity of the legal system, Mortimer himself appeared in many key cases concerned with civil liberty and alleged obscenity, often encapsulating important points in a very direct and arresting way.
He was opposed to the incursions on freedom of expression that the state was apt to attempt in the 1960s and 1970s. “The attitude of censorship,” he wrote, ” depends on the assumption that there is a superior type of person qualified to tell the rest of us what it is good for us to read”.
He noted, in the context of obscenity trials, that it was oddly anomalous that while murder was illegal it wasn’t a crime to write about it, whereas sex was legal but to write about it could be a crime.
Various of his jewels of legal wisdom came from his father, Clifford, who was also a barrister.
Speaking of cross-examination, for example, Mortimer notes a precept of his father’s that it can be done politely and without hostility “the art of cross-examination is not the art of examining crossly”.
One of his aphorisms should be a lesson for the modern world. Mortimer observed that in a multiculutural society with varied secular and religious beliefs, “tolerance demands that no one group may be allowed to impose its moral views, however strongly held, upon another”.
Mortimer’s sanguinity of spirit, wit and extraordinarily powerful and funny storytelling have helped shape modern social ideas about what is good and bad in the law.
He was a gentle figure of immense historical importance because of the way he put issues of modern law so vividly into the public consciousness.