Friday, April 24, 2009

Sir John Clifford Mortimer, CBE, QC (21 April 1923 – 16 January 2009

Though best known in the US for the PBS TV program Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer was much more than a witty author of British crime stories. As a English barrister, Mortimer provided the defense in several major British free speech trials, cases that he said were “alleged to be testing the frontiers of tolerance.” Both his parallel careers as author and as barrister served Mortimer's belief in law as protector of individual liberties.

Called to the Bar in 1948, Mortimer was made a Queen's Counsel in 1966, and retired in 1984. On “taking silk” (as becoming a Queen’s Counsel in known, referring to the silk robes the QCs wear in court) he began defending criminal cases, including obscenity charges. In 1968, he successfully defended John Calder and Marion Boyars on appeal of their conviction under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby. This case is considered a turning point in British censorship law.

In the early 1970s, the Obscene Publications Squad, with covert blessing from conservative elements in government, went after radical underground publications to divert attention from the real pornography they'd been bribed to ignore. Mortimer was one of the few barristers willing to defend in such cases. He defended Richard Handyside who published an English edition of the Danish Little Red Schoolbook guide for students to sex, drugs and rebellion. Handyside lost and eventually appealed to the European Court of Human Rights which helped to define how free speech would be handled across national boundaries.

Oz, an underground magazine, produced one issue (#28) written and illustrated by students, but the crude humor of “Schoolkids Oz” provoked prosecution under an archaic law, “conspiracy to corrupt the public morals,” that had no limit on the possible sentence. Mortimer defended the publishers in the 1971 “Oz conspiracy” trial, the longest obscenity trial in British legal history, and the harsh sentence was quashed on appeal. In his summing up for the jury, Mortimer said, "The case stands at the very cross roads of our liberties, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write about what we please."

In 1977, Mortimer defended Gay News editor Denis Lemon who was charged with Blasphemous libel in Whitehouse v. Lemon for publishing James Kirkup's poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name." The poem uses homoerotic imagery about Jesus to reconcile faith and same-sex love. The magazine was convicted and fined but Lemon's sentence was quashed on appeal.

The title of the 1977 Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks, uses a British vulgarity that brought Virgin Records and one of its' shops' window displays into court charged under the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act. Mortimer's defense included a professor of English who observed that “bollocks” appeared in englsh placenames without stirring any sensual desires in the residents. In his summing up, Mortimer asked, “do we live in a country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language to be verile and strong or watered down and weak?” The album title was acquitted of indecency.

Mortimer also used his character Horace Rumpole and the people he defends in London's Old Bailey, to illustrate his beliefs and promote his causes. He was against the death penalty as well as censorship, and a strong advocate for the right of all accused to a fair trial. Particularly in his second full length novel, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror published in 2006, Mortimer challenged the erosion of liberty in the name of national security. Despite criticism from his colleagues and his wife Hilda, Rumpole defends a Pakistani doctor accused of being an al Qaeda terrorist. The barrister condemns Britain's Anti-Terror Act as an assault on Magna Carta, aiding terrorism by undermining the rule of law. The fictional case also examines Britain's struggle with its new diversity.

After Labour's victory in 1997, Mortimer had been rewarded with a knighthood, but he became a persistent critic of the government's disregard of individual liberty. In both careers, he helped make criminal defense work respectable and police procedures more trustworthy. He always asserted that defense of individual liberties was the only justification for the profession of law, and its highest calling.

-Carolyn Caywood

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