Columns On Law

Legal laughs

Legal “humour” is seldom more than mildly amusing

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The trouble with lawyersjokes, said the wag, is that lawyers don’t find them funny, and no one else thinks they are jokes.

Now, this is not entirely the fault of lawyers, who have to contend with modern public life, which is as humourless as it is preachy (I note, without comment, that the “Legal Humour” section of Wildy & Sons’ website includes Geoffrey Robertson KC’s memoirs as well as a book by The Secret Barrister).

But it cannot be denied that legal humour, at least in England, has seldom risen to very great heights. Take Theobald Mathew, Clement Attlee’s pupil master, who was widely reckoned to be the greatest legal wit of his generation.

His most famous quip — which “acquired legendary status during his lifetime” ran something like this (as retold by an admiring obituarist):

Visiting the library of another Inn, at that time notorious for its recruitment of students from equatorial Africa, Mathew had to make his way through ranks of these dusky lawyers. At length he saw the white face of a friend, held out his hand in greeting, and said: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Maybe you had to be there. Or not. But making due allowance for changing social mores, one can still find the occasionally funny line in the law reports. Take this opening from Males J (as he then was), where the plaintiff:

Was formerly a barrister and then a solicitor specialising in tax law. Some people might have found that exciting enough, but since 2005, when he acquired and ran a company making pornographic films in which he also starred, he has been active in the sex industry. He describes himself now as a wealthy man living a playboy lifestyle. Those who are interested can apparently find details in the pages of Loaded magazine.

But one suspects his lordship was only able to get away with it because the plaintiff was himself a lawyer, and thus safe to mock under the social conventions of humour.

Sir Max Beerbohm drew a caricature which nowadays would get you in front of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office

The average civil litigant does not see anything funny in being in court, and long gone are the days when the criminal judge could dish out a bit of gratuitous abuse against some petty criminal.

In any case, judicial humour is often said to “occupy a low place in the order of wit”, mainly because lawyers often feel obliged to laugh at it. A legal obituarist once praised a dead judge’s dry sense of humour, before hastening to add that he “never degenerated into judicial joking”.

Some judges were notorious. Before he went on the bench, Darling J was renowned for having written “the wittiest book ever written by a legal luminary” (the first line: “Est operae pretium duplicis pernoscere juris Naturam, says Horace. I believe he wrote thus concerning soup.” You don’t say.) But once on the bench, Darling:

Would lie back in his chair staring at the ceiling with the back of his head cupped in his hands paying scant attention to any argument but waiting until some footling little joke occurred to his mind. When this happened he would make the joke, the court would echo for about thirty seconds with sycophantic laughter, and then the process would start over again.

Now, sycophancy aside, some of his lines were funny (a witness at the assizes said he went inside The Elephant pub to make a phone call. Darling: “Was it a trunk call?”), but jokes are not always funny when a man is being tried for his life.

Sir Max Beerbohm drew a caricature of Darling having jester’s bells added to his black cap, which nowadays would be the sort of reputation which would get you in front of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office.

This is not to say that lawyers’ humour is never funny. But the best legal humour tends to be gently observational. A personal favourite is Maurice Healey’s The Old Munster Circuit, which contains some rib-cracking passages in which the author, an old Irish circuiteer, did nothing more sophisticated than to describe the common forms of perjury practised in rural Ireland before the First World War.

Another favourite is A P Herbert, who acquired a certain amount of fame for writing satirical law reports for Punch, some of which were cited as real authorities by real courts. Herbert’s plaintiffs were often civil libertarians (like himself); his judges decidedly not.

In one of his more famous cases, the following judgment was given by the Lord Chief Justice (the defendant had jumped off Hammersmith Bridge for “fun”):

The appellant made the general answer that this was a free country and a man can do what he likes if he does nobody any harm … It cannot be too clearly understood that this is not a free country, and it will be an evil day for the legal profession when it is … People must not do things for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament.

In the Britain of 2024, this rings, alas, more true than ever.

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