Patrick Devlin, Baron Devlin

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

Patrick Arthur Devlin, Baron Devlin, PC (25 November 1905 – 9 August 1992) was a British lawyer, judge and jurist. He wrote a report on Britain's involvement in Nyasaland in 1959. In 1985 he became the first British judge to write a book about a case he had presided over, the 1957 trial of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams.[1]


Patrick Devlin was born in Chislehurst, Kent. His father was a Roman Catholic architect whose own father came from County Tyrone, and his mother was a Protestant, originally from Aberdeen. In 1909, a few years after Devlin's birth, the family moved to his mother's birthplace. The children were raised as Catholics, two of Devlin's sisters became nuns, and a brother became a Jesuit priest (another brother was an actor). Patrick Devlin joined the Dominican order as a novice after leaving Stonyhurst College, but left after a year for Christ's College, Cambridge.

At Cambridge, Devlin read both history and law, and he graduated in 1927, joining Gray's Inn and passing the bar exam in 1929. He worked as junior barrister for William Jowitt while Jowitt was Attorney-General, and by the late 1930s he had become a successful commercial lawyer. During the Second World War he worked for various ministries of the UK Government, and in 1948 Jowitt (by then Lord Chancellor) made Devlin (then aged 42) a High Court judge, the second-youngest such appointment in the 20th century. Devlin was knighted later that year.

In 1960, Devlin was made a Lord Justice of Appeal, and the following year he became a Law Lord and life peer as Baron Devlin, of West Wick in the County of Wiltshire. He retired in 1964, at the age of 58, having completed the minimum 15 years then necessary to qualify for a full judicial pension. It is speculated that his retirement was due in part his boredom with the large number of tax cases that came before the House of Lords.[2] He himself explained in an interview: "I was extremely happy as a judge of first instance. I was never happy as an appellate judge ... for the most part, the work was dreary beyond belief. All those revenue cases ..."[2]

After retirement, Baron Devlin was a judge on the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization until 1986. He was also chairman of the Press Council from 1964–69, and High Steward of Cambridge University from 1966 until 1991. He also spent time writing about law and history, especially the interaction of law with moral philosophy, and the importance of juries. He was active in the campaigns to reopen the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven cases. He died aged 86 in Pewsey, Wiltshire.[3]

Devlin married Madeleine Oppenheimer (1909–2012) in 1932; they had six children.

Celebrated cases

John Bodkin Adams

Amongst many commercial and criminal cases that Devlin tried, one of the most famous was the 1957 trial of John Bodkin Adams, an Eastbourne doctor indicted for murdering two of his patients – widows Edith Alice Morrell and Gertrude Hullett, one of them elderly.

The investigation was taken over from Eastbourne police by two officers from the Metropolitan Police's Murder Squad. The senior officer, Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam of Scotland Yard was known for having solved the infamous Teddington Towpath Murders in 1953.[29] He was assisted by Detective Sergeant Charles Hewett.

Hewett described how both officers were astounded at the Attorney-General's decision to charge Adams with the murder of Morrell, since her body had been cremated and therefore there was no evidence to present before a jury.

Bodkin-Adams was tried and controversially found not guilty on the Morrell charge and even more controversially, the prosecutor – Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller – entered a nolle prosequi regarding the Hullett charge. Devlin later termed this "an abuse of process".[1]

Devlin also received a phone call from Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard while the jury was considering their verdict on the Morrell charge. In the event of Adams being acquitted, Goddard asked Devlin to consider releasing Adams on bail before the Hullett trial which was due to start afterwards. Devlin was surprised because no one accused of murder had ever been granted bail in British legal history.[1] Unknown to Devlin, Goddard had had lunch with the defendant's close friend Roland Gwynne at a hotel in Lewes before the trial had commenced.[4] Home Office pathologist Francis Camps suspected Adams of causing 163 deaths in total.[4]

In 1985, two years after the death of Adams, Devlin wrote an account of the trial, Easing the Passing – the first such book by a judge in British history.

Reaction to Easing the Passing

Easing the Passing provoked a lot of controversy within the legal profession. Some disapproved of a judge writing about a case he had presided over, while others disliked Devlin's dismissal of Manningham-Buller's approach to the case. Lord Hailsham told judge John Baker: "He ought never to have written it" before adding with a laugh, "But, it's a jolly good read".[5]

Wolfenden report

After the Wolfenden report in 1957, Devlin argued, initially in his 1959 Maccabean Lecture in Jurisprudence at the British Academy,[6][7] in support of James Fitzjames Stephen that popular morality should be allowed to influence lawmaking, and that even private acts should be subject to legal sanction if they were held to be morally unacceptable by the "reasonable man", to preserve the moral fabric of society (Devlin's "reasonable man" was one who held commonly accepted views, not necessarily derived from reason as such). H. L. A. Hart supported the report's opposing view (derived from John Stuart Mill) that the law had no business interfering with private acts that harmed nobody. Devlin's argument was expanded in his 1965 book The Enforcement of Morals. As a result of his famous debate with Devlin on the role of the criminal law in enforcing moral norms, Hart wrote Law, Liberty and Morality (1963) and The Morality of the Criminal Law (1965).

Devlin argued that a society's existence depends on the maintenance of shared political and moral values. Violation of the shared morality loosens one of the bonds that hold a society together, and thereby threatens it with disintegration. Devlin proposed a public morality that, in certain situations, would override matters of personal or private judgment.

He argued that because an attack on "society's constitutive morality" would threaten society with disintegration, such acts could not be free from public scrutiny and sanction on the basis that they were purely private acts. In Devlin's view, homosexual acts were a threat to society's morality. In short, he maintained that legal intervention was essential to ensure both individual and collective survival, and to prevent social disintegration due to a loss of social cohesion:

Devlin believed that "the limits of tolerance" are reached when the feelings of the ordinary person towards a particular form of conduct reaches a certain intensity of "intolerance, indignation and disgust". If, for example, it is the genuine feeling of society that homosexuality is "a vice so abominable that its mere presence is an offence", then society may eradicate it.

Devlin's views evolved over time. In May 1965 he was one of the signatories of a letter to The Times calling for the implementation of the Wolfenden reforms.[8][9]

The American legal philosopher Joel Feinberg stated in 1987 that to a "modern" reader, Devlin's responses to Hart's arguments "seem feeble and perfunctory" and that most readers "will probably conclude that there is no salvaging Devlin's social disintegration thesis, his analogies to political subversion and treason, his conception of the nature of popular morality and how its deliverance is to be ascertained, or the skimpy place he allows to natural moral change".[10] Feinberg does allow that Devlin has an important challenge to liberalism in his formulation of an argument as to why we "treat greater moral blameworthiness ... as an aggravating factor and lesser moral blameworthiness as a mitigating factor in the assignments of punishment".[10]

Devlin Commission: Report of the Nyasaland Commission of Inquiry

In 1959 Devlin was chosen by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to compile a report into policing in Nyasaland (Malawi). It was however highly critical of British methods. Macmillan reacted by criticising Devlin for having "that Fenian blood that makes Irishmen anti-Government on principle" and for being "bitterly disappointed at my not having made him Lord Chief Justice". He also called him a "hunchback".[4] In response to the Devlin Report the government hurriedly commissioned the rival Armitage Report, which was delivered in July of that year and backed Britain's role there. Bernard Levin, among others, was of the opinion that "The Government refused to accept the Devlin Report because it told the truth".[4]


  • Devlin, The Hon. Sir Patrick, Trial by Jury, Stevens & Sons, 1956, 1966
  • Devlin, Patrick, The Enforcement of Morals, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1965, 1968
  • Devlin, Patrick, Too Proud to Fight, 1974 (biography of Woodrow Wilson)
  • Devlin, Patrick, The Judge, Oxford University Press, 1979, 1981
  • Devlin, Patrick, Easing the Passing, The Bodley Head, 1985



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Devlin, Patrick; "Easing the Passing", London, The Bodley Head, 1985
  2. 2.0 2.1 Times, 11 June 1985, p. 10
  3. Honoré, Tony (2004), "Devlin, Patrick Arthur, Baron Devlin (1905–1992)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Cullen 2006, p. ?
  5. Google books
  6. "Maccabaean Lectures in Jurisprudence"
  7. “But study destroyed instead of confirming the simple faith in which I had begun my task; and the Maccabean Lecture... is a statement of the reasons which persuaded me that I was wrong.”
  8. "Law on Homosexuals", The Times, The Times Digital Archive (56318), p. 13, 11 May 1965, retrieved 20 July 2012<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  9. Robert CL Moffat, "“NOT THE LAW’S BUSINESS:” THE POLITICS OF TOLERANCE AND THE ENFORCEMENT OF MORA\ LITY" in Florida Law Review (2005) vol.57 p.1097
  10. 10.0 10.1 Feinberg, J. (1987). "Some Unswept Debris from the Hart-Devlin Debate". Synthese. 72 (2): 249–275. doi:10.1007/BF00413641.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Cullen, Pamela V. (2006), A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, Elliott & Thompson, ISBN 1-904027-19-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Media offices
Preceded by
George Murray
Chairman of the Press Council
Succeeded by
Edward Pearce

Template:Adams Trial