Jeremy Hutchinson, lawyer in Britain's Lady Chatterley's Lover case, dies at 102

(Washington Post) - Jeremy Hutchinson, a British lawyer who excelled as a silver-tongued goad to high society and a devilish advocate for spies and drug smugglers, and who fought legal battles during the countercultural ferment of the 1960s and 70s that helped broaden freedom of expression in Britain, died on Monday (Nov 13) at his home in Lullington, England. He was 102.

Thomas Grant, a lawyer who wrote a 2015 book chronicling some of Hutchinson's best-known cases, confirmed his death but said he did not know the cause.

Born into a wealthy family that dined with poet T.S. Eliot and members of London's Bloomsbury Group literary set, Hutchinson was among the last of Britain's lawyer-celebrities, white-haired barristers whose performances in the courtroom were sometimes as closely followed as those of actors on the stage.

He nearly matched the theatrics of his first wife, Shakespearean actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, captivating juries with a polished, mesmeric speaking style and lightly mocking judges as "old darling" - a habit that his friend John Mortimer conferred on popular television character Horace Rumpole.

Yet Hutchinson's talents were not used in support of the conservative establishment that gave him the elite legal designation of queen's counsel or, in 1978, ennobled him as Baron Hutchinson of Lullington. Lord Hutchinson, as he was known, was a liberal who once made an unsuccessful attempt to run for Parliament as a member of the Labour Party.

"He wanted to undermine the age of deference - whether deference to political masters or to censors - and to inject a certain amount of freedom into public life," Grant said. "At a time when the criminal advocate was not necessarily conceived as the most glamorous or important of occupations, he showed that it was an absolutely critical part of constitutional arrangements, a bulwark of law and civil liberties."

Hutchinson's clients included Christine Keeler, a model convicted of perjury for her role in the 1960s political scandal known as the Profumo affair, and Soviet spies George Blake and John Vassall, for whom he unsuccessfully sought leniency.

He defended Welsh drug smuggler Howard Marks, making the successful (and, to many observers, questionable) argument that his client had been working for Britain's MI6 intelligence service, and was equally successfully in arguing that a bus driver who took a Goya portrait from the National Gallery in London hadn't "stolen" the painting, but had planned to give it back after a ransom was paid to charity.

Hutchinson was junior counsel for his best-known case, when he defended Penguin Books against obscenity charges in 1960 for publishing an uncensored version of D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Originally released in Italy in 1928, the book featured detailed sex scenes and, by one prosecutor's count, no fewer than 30 uses of an explicit four-letter word.

A ban on the novel had been lifted in the United States one year earlier, when an appeals court established the standard of "redeeming social or literary value" for works that verged on the legally obscene. Hutchinson - following after his father, a lawyer who had rescued some of Lawrence's sexually explicit paintings during an obscenity case in the 1920s - sought to make a similar case for Chatterley's literary merit in Britain.

With lead defence attorney Gerald Gardiner, he called upon witnesses that included novelist E.M. Forster and literary scholar Richard Hoggart, and pressed for the inclusion of female jurors. "I found that women were far more sensible," he said later, "and had very much less baggage than men on matters of sex."

He seemed to be proved right when prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the jury, "Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?"

Several jurors burst out laughing, and after rendering a verdict of not guilty, Lady Chatterley's Lover sold 200,000 copies on its first day of publication.

"No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact," human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2010, noting that the case was followed by liberal court decisions that legalised homosexuality and abortion.

He successfully defended works including the scholarly book The Mouth And Oral Sex (1969), ridiculing the judge's question to a defence witness of why a study of the sex act was necessary, given that "we have managed to get on for a couple of thousand years without it". In his closing speech to the jury, Hutchinson quipped, "Poor His Lordship! Poor, poor His Lordship! Gone without oral sex for 1,000 years."

Hutchinson's legal battles against censorship continued, most memorably with his defence of Howard Brenton's play The Romans In Britain, which premiered at London's National Theatre in 1980.

Conservative watchdog Mary Whitehouse, the "queen of clean", charged the play's director with procuring "an act of gross indecency" during a scene that portrayed a Roman soldier's anal rape of a Celt. The key witness claimed to have seen a flash of an erect penis on the stage.

In court, Hutchinson proceeded to demonstrate that the witness was sitting a full 90 yards (82m) from the actors. Tucking his hands under his gown and wiggling a thumb inside his fist, he argued that the witness might easily have mistaken one fleshy protuberance for another.

The courtroom descended into laughter, and the charges were soon dropped.

Jeremy Nicolas Hutchinson was born in London on March 28, 1915. His father was an art collector, and his mother was a cousin of biographer Lytton Strachey.

Hutchinson studied at the University of Oxford before beginning his legal career in 1939. He served in the British navy during World War II, surviving a bombing run that sank his vessel during the Battle of Crete. Floating in the water for hours before rescue, he sang to maintain morale and clung to wreckage alongside the ship's commander, Louis Mountbatten.

Hutchinson's marriage to Ashcroft ended in divorce. His wife of 40 years, the former June Osborn, died in 2006. Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Nicholas Hutchinson, and several grandchildren.

In 2011, Hutchinson took the unusual step of retiring from the House of Lords. He spent the past several decades focused mainly on art, serving as a trustee and chairman for the Tate museum and helping establish its Tate Liverpool branch.

In recent years, he lamented changes in Britain's legal system, particularly funding cuts to its programme of legal aid for poor defendants. "The result," he told BBC Radio 4, shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday, "is the criminal bar will only serve people who have enough money to pay for it."