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Rumpole’s Advice for the Ages: “Never Plead Guilty!”

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | January 31, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

“I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs. Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed) and father to Nicholas Rumpole (lecturer in social studies at the University of Baltimore, I have always been extremely proud of Nick); I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, finger prints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (there’s not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent triumphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the Courts of Law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.”

With those words, Horace Rumpole, elderly junior barrister, one of the most vividly portrayed characters in English literature, commenced his fictional memoirs. It is a fascinating story, told episodically in collections of short stories and novels appearing in print and on television from the mid-seventies until 2007. The recent passing of Mr. Rumpole’s creator, Sir John Mortimer, only signified that the story was fully and finally told. For the great Rumpole will never die.

If you need to be persuaded of this great barrister’s singular stature, observe the performance of Leo McKern as Rumpole addressing the jury in the last of some 44 episodes broadcast by the BBC and brought to America on public television.

True, in his fictional time and place, poor Rumpole was little appreciated, except by members of the Timson family, a large and industrious clan of petty criminals who, for all their human shortcomings, recognized effective courtroom advocacy. Most of the barristers at the Bailey, with the exception of a few of Rumpole’s prodigies, demonstrated an astounding absence of energy and devotion to their clients’ cause. This is a arresting idea to ponder, if you happen to be a client. When the trial is about to begin, how do you find out whether you have the dogged and resourceful Horace Rumpole or the hapless and unimaginative Claude Erskine Brown on your brief? There are several ways to obtain the answer to this vital question. The Timsons were informed by the best method, experience.

Rumpole’s career, however, was not an unbroken series of courtroom triumphs. He received quite a few judicial lumps, resulting in quite a few trips for his clients from Old Bailey to Brixton Prison. The criminal court bench, those cold-blooded old darlings, were usually inclined to view Rumpole’s best defense efforts as an obstruction of justice. But judges, for all their power, do not always have the last word. The genius of the English system of justice is the jury. Rumpole is the master of addressing the jury.

The creator is gone, but the creation remains. Over and over, Rumpole will tell his story to another generation of readers and demonstrate the art of addressing the jury to a new gallery of viewers. He will continue to teach, to inspire, to advise present and future barristers. And he will always say to them (well almost always): Never Plead Guilty!



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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