IV The Rule of Law: 1907–2014


THE RULE OF LAW 1907–2014




‘The Martyrdom of Adolph Beck’ and the Creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal

The Law is the true embodiment

Of everything that’s excellent

It has no kind of fault or flaw.

And I, my Lords, embody the Law.

W. S. Gilbert, Iolanthe

THE MORE the newspapers covered trials, the more their reporters took an interest in the cases they covered and developed a degree of forensic expertise. Something was to happen that had never happened before. Trials, and the investigations behind them, were put under public scrutiny. Some of the latter seemed to show the hand of Inspector Lestrade more than that of Sherlock Holmes. The prurient and pugnacious upstarts of the press were straining at the leash to savage the system of justice. Doubts about it were creeping in. Perhaps it was not infallible; perhaps mistakes could be made; perhaps the innocent were sometimes convicted; perhaps executive review would prove inadequate; perhaps – perish the thought – an innocent could be hanged.

It was not just the plebeian police who were subjected to rough handling. The exalted legal process itself, and even the words and actions of the judiciary, fell under the spotlight of an investigative and demotic press, devoid of due deference. Judicial decisions were scrutinised and even criticised, and potential miscarriages of justice, thought virtually impossible in what was considered to be a near-perfect legal system, became front page news. These developments initially damaged, but ultimately sustained the reputation of the courts and of trial by jury. A legal system that believes itself perfect is doomed to disappoint, but one that is capable of admitting mistakes, and is willing to incorporate safeguards, ensures it has the flexibility to survive and flourish. One press campaign would prove decisive. Instigated by the recently created tabloid, The Daily Mail, it was encouraged by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the doyen of detectives, and an amateur sleuth himself. It was to prove so effective that it helped bring about the necessary change and create a judicial institution designed to rectify errors. The campaign centred on the case of Adolph Beck, a convicted fraudster.

In 1877 a rogue calling himself ‘John Smith’ – actually a Joseph Meyer – had been imprisoned for swindling women out of their money and jewellery. In a classic of the genre, the charming cad had done so by posing as an aristocrat, assuming the portentous but entirely fictitious title, Lord Wilton de Willoughby. The victorious prosecuting counsel had been one Forrest Fulton. Eighteen years later ‘Lord Willoughby’ was back in action, duping further victims out of their property. Ten of them identified a Norwegian called Adolph Beck as the miscreant, although several others were equally sure he was not. A handwriting expert called Gurin confirmed that the incriminating documents in 1895 were in Beck’s disguised hand. He was also of the opinion that the same hand was responsible for the exhibits in 1877. This latter evidence was not to be adduced when Beck was tried at the Old Bailey in March 1896. ‘Smith’s’ erstwhile prosecutor was to be Beck’s judge: Sir Forrest Fulton, by then the Common Serjeant.1 When defence council tried to elicit from Gurin the fact that the exhibits from 1877 (when Beck was demonstrably in Peru) were in the same hand as those written in 1895 (attributed to Beck), the judge ruled that no mention of this ‘collateral matter’ should be made to the jury. The mainstay of the defence was smashed. The prosecution witnesses were consistent and confident, and their evidence cumulative and conclusive. Beck was identified as the swindler by an overwhelming number of independent victims whose evidence had apparently been corroborated by expert handwriting evidence. Guilt could hardly have been clearer. Beck was convicted within a few minutes, and imprisoned for seven years.2

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