A new book, Tales from the Courtroom, by English lawyer Brian Harris offers an interesting mix of historical, mysterious and humorous legal vignettes, mostly of UK origin, but also including a few American tales.
The book includes a fair share of dark legal humor, such as the tale of a Scottish judge named Kames who in 1780 found himself trying Matthew Hay, his former chess partner, for murder. When the verdict of guilty was returned, Kames chillingly remarked, “That’s checkmate to you, Matthew!” (Harris points out that the statement must be read in a Scottish accent for full effect.)
One of the best historical tales involves F.E. Smith’s (Lord Birkenhead) tiff with a sanctimonious judge:
F.E. had been briefed for a tramway company which had been sued for damages for injuries to a boy who had been run over. The judge was deeply moved. ‘Poor boy, poor boy’, he said. ‘Blind. Put him on a chair so that the jury can see him.’
F.E. said coldly: ‘Perhaps your honour would like to have the boy passed round the jury box.’
‘That is a most improper remark’, said Judge Willis angrily.
‘It was provoked’, said F.E., ‘by a most improper suggestion.’ There was a heavy pause, and the judge continued, ‘Mr. Smith, have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon—the great Bacon—that youth and discretion are ill-wed companions?’
‘Indeed I have, your Honour; and has your Honour ever heard of a saying by Bacon—the great Bacon—that a much talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?’
The judge replied furiously, “You are extremely offensive, young man’; and F.E. added to his previous lapses by saying: ‘As a matter of fact we both are; the only difference between us is that I’m trying to be and you can’t help it.’
The book is available on Amazon. A review can be found on Harris’ TheAncientLawyer blog.