Patrick Devlin

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Person.png Patrick Devlin  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Patrick Arthur Devlin, Baron Devlin.jpg
Born25 November 1905
Died9 August 1992 (Age 86)
Alma materStonyhurst College, Christ's College (Cambridge)
SpouseMadeleine Hilda Oppenheimer
InterestsOppenheimer family
British judge. Married into the Oppenheimer family. Called the British rule in Nyasaland a "police state".

Patrick Arthur Devlin, Baron Devlin was a British judge. The second-youngest English High Court judge in the 20th century, he served as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary from 1960 to 1964.

In 1959, Devlin headed the Devlin Commission, which reported on the State of Emergency declared by the colonial governor of Nyasaland. In 1985 he became the first British judge to write a book about a case he had presided over, the 1957 trial of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams.[1] Devlin is also well known for his part in the debate around homosexuality in British law; in response to the Wolfenden report, he argued, contrary to H. L. A. Hart, that a common public morality should be upheld.

Early life and career

Patrick Devlin was born in Chislehurst, Kent. His father was an Irish Roman Catholic architect whose own father came from County Tyrone, and his mother was a Scottish Protestant, originally from Aberdeen. In 1909, a few years after Devlin's birth, the family moved to his mother's birthplace. The children were raised as Catholics, two of Devlin's sisters became nuns, and a brother became a Jesuit priest (another brother was the actor William Devlin).[2]

Devlin joined the Dominican order as a novice after leaving Stonyhurst College, but left after a year for Christ's College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, Devlin read both History and Law, and was elected President of the Cambridge Union in 1926. He graduated in 1927, having obtained a Lower Second for both parts of his degree.

He joined Gray's Inn in 1927 and passing the bar exam in 1929. He worked as devil for William Jowitt while Jowitt was Attorney-General, and by the late 1930s he had become a successful commercial lawyer.

In 1932, Devlin married Madeleine Hilda Oppenheimer (1909–2012), daughter of the diamonds magnate Sir Bernard Oppenheimer, Bt. Together the couple had six children.[3]

During the Second World War he worked for several government ministries. He took silk in 1959 and was Attorney-General of the Duchy of Cornwall between 1947 and 1948.

High Court judge

In 1948, Jowitt (by then Lord Chancellor) made Devlin, then aged 42, a High Court judge, assigned to the King's Bench Division; he received the customary knighthood later that year. He became the second-youngest person to be appointed to the High Court bench in the 20th century. From 1956 to 1960 he was also the first President of the Restrictive Practices Court.

Trial of John Bodkin Adams

Amongst many commercial and criminal cases that Devlin tried, perhaps his most famous case was the 1957 trial of John Bodkin Adams, an Eastbourne doctor indicted for murdering two of his patients Edith Alice Morrell an elderly widow and Gertrude Hullett, a middle-aged woman whose husband had died four months before her death. Although the Attorney-General's decision to charge Adams with the murder of Morrell, whose body had been cremated, was questioned,[4] Devlin considered the Morrell case, although six years old, was a stronger than that of Mrs Hullett, who had clearly committed suicide and the extent, if any, of Adams' involvement in this was uncertain.[5]

Bodkin Adams was tried on the Morrell charge. Devlin considered that the prosecution, although it had not been wrong to bring the case to trial, had not prepared its case adequately as the Attorney-General was a busy minister and the next most senior member of his team Melford Stevenson did not make up for his leader's absence.[6] The prosecution had not presented a coherent case, particularly on motive, and in his summing up Devlin said that the defence case was a manifestly strong one.[7] In contrast, the defence led by Geoffrey Lawrence Q.C. had, in his view, presented a meticulously prepared and ably argued case.[8] Devlin directed the jury not to find for the prosecution unless they rejected all the defence arguments, and accepted this was a summing up for an acquittal.[7] Adams was then found not guilty on the Morrell charge. Controversially, the prosecutor – Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller – claimed in parliament that the acquittal was the result of Devlin's judicial misdirection[9] and even more controversially, he entered a nolle prosequi regarding the Hullett charge. Devlin later termed this "an abuse of process", done because the prosecution's case was deficient, and left Adams under the suspicion that there might have been some truth in talk of mass murder.[10]

Devlin also received a phone call from the Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard at the time defence and prosecution were making their closing speeches. In the event of Adams being acquitted, Goddard suggested that Devlin might consider an application to release Adams on bail before the Hullett trial which was due to start afterwards. Devlin was initially extremely surprised because he had never heard of anyone accused of murder having ever been granted bail, although he considered that Lord Goddard was not deterred by the lack of any precedent. However, he considered that such an application might be justified in the particular circumstances of this case, and invited the Attorney-General and Geoffrey Lawrence to discuss the issue.[11]

In 1985, two years after the death of Adams, Devlin wrote an account of the trial, Easing the Passing – the first such book by a judge in British history. Easing the Passing provoked a great deal of controversy within the legal profession. Some disapproved of a judge writing about a case he had presided over, while others disliked Devlin's dismissal of Manningham-Buller's approach to the case. Lord Hailsham told judge John Baker: "He ought never to have written it" before adding with a laugh, "But, it's a jolly good read".[12]

Devlin Commission

In 1959, soon after the declaration of the state of emergency in Nyasaland, the British Cabinet under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the disturbances there and their "policing", and appointed Devlin as chairman. Devlin was not Macmillan's choice for chairman, and he later criticised Devlin's appointment, criticising him for having "that Fenian blood that makes Irishmen anti-Government on principle" and for being "bitterly disappointed at my not having made him Lord Chief Justice". He also called him a "hunchback".[13]

The Devlin Report is the only example of a British judge examining whether the actions of a colonial administration in suppressing dissent were appropriate. In response to an early draft of the commission's report, which was highly critical of repressive police methods, the government hurriedly commissioned the rival Armitage Report, which was delivered in July of that year and backed Britain's role there. Bernard Levin, among others, was of the opinion that "The Government refused to accept the Devlin Report because it told the truth".[13] Despite Macmillan's's rejection of the Devlin Report, once Iain Macleod became Colonial Secretary later in 1959, he approached Devlin for advice.[14]

Court of Appeal and House of Lords

In 1960, Devlin was made a Lord Justice of Appeal, and the following year, on 11 October, he became a law lord and life peer, as Baron Devlin, of West Wick in the County of Wiltshire.[15] He retired in 1964, at the age of 58, having completed the minimum 15 years then necessary to qualify for a full judicial pension. It is speculated that his retirement was due in part his boredom with the large number of tax cases that came before the House of Lords.[16] He himself explained in an interview: "I was extremely happy as a judge of first instance. I was never happy as an appellate judge ... for the most part, the work was dreary beyond belief. All those revenue cases ..."[16]

After retirement, Lord Devlin was a judge on the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization until 1986. He was also chairman of the Press Council from 1964–69, and High Steward of Cambridge University from 1966 until 1991. He also spent time writing about law and history, especially the interaction of law with moral philosophy, and the importance of juries. He was active in the campaigns to reopen the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven cases. He died aged 86 in Pewsey, Wiltshire.

Lord Devlin received several honorary degrees, including from Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Sussex, Leicester, Toronto, and Durham.[17]

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  1. Devlin, Patrick; "Easing the Passing", London, The Bodley Head, 1985
  4. Hallworth, pp. 41, 58.
  5. Devlin, (1985), pp. 25, 179.
  6. Devlin, (1985), pp. 121, 178.
  7. a b Devlin, (1985), pp. 167, 177.
  8. Devlin, (1985), p. 161.
  9. Devlin, (1985), p. 187.
  10. Devlin, (1985), pp. 180–1.
  11. Devlin, (1985), pp. 178–9.
  12. Baker, John (2006). Ballot Box to Jury Box. ISBN 9781904380191.
  13. a b Cullen 2006, p. ?
  14. C Baker, (1997). Nyasaland, 1959: A Police State? p. 23.
  16. a b The Times. London. 11 June 1985.
  17. The Press and the People. London: The Press Council. 1968. p. 92.
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