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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: John Mortimer

From Washington Lawyer, March 2004

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator Horace Rumpole may be better known than John Mortimer, Rumpole’s creator. Mortimer’s legal career brought him in court in all kinds of litigation including the domestic relations practice he inherited from his father. He said his father extracted a living (even after he went blind) largely on the proceeds of adultery, cruelty, and willful neglect to provide reasonable maintenance.

Mortimer put to good use in his Rumpole stories and in his other writing, plays and novels, the things he picked up about people in his law practice:

I count myself extremely lucky to have been called to the bar in my twenties and to have immediately found middle-aged women, businessmen and suburban housewives ready to pour out all the secrets of their lives. I was fortunate enough to meet murderers, con men, contract killers, politicians with unrevealed scandals and, on one horrible occasion, an assistant hangman. All of this was a great privilege and seems to me to have been more useful than moving, with the publication of my first novel—an event which happened shortly before I got called to the bar—into the world of editors, publishers and other writers. The bar exams are pretty dull, as is learning law academically when it’s not connected with real human beings in trouble, but it’s well worth it for the help you may get as a writer. . . .
     When Mortimer was active at the bar, he did not hold himself personally accountable for what was wrong with the profession. He took it as he found it. Mortimer did hold himself accountable for trying to be decent, which meant to him compassion, fairness, and, whenever possible, giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Rumpole is of the same mind. His encounters within the legal process bring him into many scattered pockets of pretension and meanness (the opposite of decency), which Mortimer has Rumpole detect and deplore.

In Mortimer’s most recent book, Where There’s a Will, he writes in the first person as an 80-year-old veteran giving worldly advice that he knows will be of little use to those who read it. The style is that of his two earlier autobiographical books. He is prejudiced, ironic, opinionated, and skeptical. He adopts a self-deprecatory pose. I saw it in action when he gave a talk here in Washington. He opened by tapping the microphone and saying, “Can you hear me in the back row?” There were shouts, “We can hear you fine.” Mortimer paused and said, “Sorry about that.”

The book is a collection of short reflective essays covering many topics in addition to the law. Included is the recommendation to start the day with a glass of champagne and, if you are a writer, then write your daily 1,000 words right away.

In his chapter titled “Law or Justice,” Mortimer criticizes a legal process that justifies cruelty under cover of declaring that the letter of the law must be enforced. Human problems sometimes get beyond the power of legal reasoning (whatever that is) to solve. He contends that the results of even the best laws, when consistently applied, are bound to be intolerable in many individual cases. He make his point with a humorous story.

A client of his wanted a divorce (his wife also wanted the divorce) at a time in the 1940s when adultery was the only available grounds. Mortimer’s client could not find someone willing to commit adultery with his wife. He devised a plan to solve the problem. He disguised himself with a false beard, false mustache, and dark glasses. In broad daylight, in front of the neighbors (the neighbors would be the witnesses), he entered his own house playing the part of the corespondent. The client ended up in jail for corrupting the legal process. Mortimer’s closing comment was, What have things come to when a man goes to jail for joining his wife in bed?

Mortimer demonstrates how a judge, by using a commonsense trick shot, brings comfort out of contention:

A judge who also had medical qualifications once told me the following story. He was trying, long ago, a perfectly friendly action between a woman’s husband and her lover to determine which of them, and they were both well off, should pay for the child’s education and future support. The parties agreed to a blood test and when the judge got the report it was perfectly clear that neither of the two men before him, but some third, possibly penniless, stranger must be the father of the child. He tore up the report, threw it into the wastepaper basket and invited the two men to his room. There he told them that the blood test had established nothing with any clarity and that they should agree to share the cost of bringing up the child. What he did was certainly against the law and, just as certainly, right.
     The January 12, 2004, New York Times carried a story that makes Mortimer’s point. It quotes a Manhattan U.S. District Court judge, Gerard E. Lynch (a former prosecutor), in his deploring the irrational sentencing guidelines that give an overzealous prosecutor the right to compel the sentencing judge to impose sentences that the judge knows are unjust, cruel, and mean-spirited.

The guidelines have been under attack for a long time. A change may be coming, not because the guidelines are wrong, but because a nation of prisoners has become too expensive to maintain. The government does not want to pay for it anymore. It is economics prevailing over ideology.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.