x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Accuracy and eloquence - I rest my case, your honour

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, which seems a reasonable description of a newspaper's readership, allow me to present a group of professionals whose expertise with the English language deserves special mention. If I say these individuals are often able to turn their use of words into a source of high income, you will know that I am talking about neither journalists nor schoolteachers but lawyers.

Lawyers and journalists fall out with one another more readily than they become good friends. I have lost count of how many times I have sat in court and heard learned counsel condemn real, exaggerated or imagined instances of press misbehaviour. But I did once manage to disarm a lawyer, at the crown court in Bristol, western England, by pointing out that while journalists sometimes got it wrong, lawyers in an adversarial judicial system necessarily got it wrong 50 per cent of the time (the lawyer in question's duty on that occasion had been to protest the innocence of a man who maimed his wife by blowing up her car).

For all our differences, however, I have often listened in deep admiration to lawyers pleading their cases in front of judges and juries. At their best, they make final speeches with such compelling eloquence and conviction that jurors could be forgiven for acquitting the most despicable of wrongdoers. One of the finest performances I witnessed was by John Mortimer, who was also a successful writer, notably of the London courtroom series Rumpole of the Bailey. He was speaking on behalf of a Californian author involved in a huge conspiracy to manufacture and distribute the drug LSD. Lawyers and reporters attending the trial found rare common ground, agreeing that Sir John - as he later became - had, with great skill, chopped two years or more off the likely sentence.

There have been many other memorable speeches in the law courts, and I have been fortunate enough to hear sparkling examples from a host of practitioners. One outstanding Irish lawyer, Paul Gallagher, managed to turn a civil case, de facto, into a murder trial while defending newspapers sued for libel by a man who had been the prime suspect in a homicide inquiry. So electrifying was his conduct of the case, and so immense his reputation, that lawyers appearing elsewhere in the building began to crowd into the back of the court to see him in action. What a shame he was later made Ireland's attorney general, depriving courtrooms of his magical qualities.

If we were to scour legal history for the finest speech made to a court, the words of an American attorney, Clarence Darrow, would be a strong contender. Even I was not available to cover the 1924 trial in which he appeared for two teenage boys from Chicago accused of kidnapping and murdering a boy of 14. The likeliest outcome was a double execution until Mr Darrow made an extraordinarily moving speech that combined compassion, realism and despair and quoted lines from the ancient Persian philosopher, Omar Khayyam, and the English poet AE Housman.

"I am pleading," Mr Darrow said, "that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honour stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children."

Against severe odds, the plea succeeded and the killers were jailed for life. Perhaps the ladies and gentlemen of my jury will agree on a verdict: that if ever they had found themselves on trial for their lives during Mr Darrow's career, they would have turned to him. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae