Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC was one of the great legal advocates of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Along with Edward Carson and F.E. Smith he dominated the courtrooms of his time. He served, like them, in Parliament but with little success. Unlike them he never sat on the bench or achieved high political office. All three of them were tremendously famous in a way no politician let alone barrister is today. In this new biography A Law Unto Himself  the QC Sally Smith provides a crisp presentation of his life and a clear explanation of his strengths and weaknesses.

Born into a respectable middle class family who lived in Brighton, he was sent away unwillingly and unhappily to boarding school, where he excelled at games and showed capacity for hard work. Nevertheless, he ended up leaving school early having fallen out with his Housemaster. He went up to Cambridge to read law, but part way through he took a year out to travel widely. Returning to his studies he finished his degree. It suggested an independence of spirit and attitude that were to be the hallmarks of the rest of his life. Smith draws out his early years and emotional development well and sets the scene.

Marshall Hall was married twice and had a daughter by his second wife, but both marriages ended up unhappily. His first marriage profoundly affected the way he conducted defence cases for vulnerable women thereafter. His second marriage endured, but at a distance. From Smith’s account Marshall Hall, whilst providing well for his family materially, seems not to have treated them with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. While they lived at various places in the country and by the seaside he spent most of his time in town moving between his chambers and his various clubs. Smith does not dwell on it but Marshall Hall clearly had a succession of what would now be called “love interests” and conducted a lengthy and sustained relationship with one woman in particular. He was a famously good-looking man and he seems to have made the most of it.

In his lifetime Marshall Hall was not regarded as a particularly good technical lawyer. Famous for his theatrical performances in court, his seeming determination to annoy judges and the legal establishment as much as possible were coupled with his great insight into how juries behave and react. But his technical mastery of the finer points of the law was not felt to be his area of strength. It is here Smith’s account is so sure footed. She recounts his most famous cases not simply as a journalist might, but from a lawyer’s point of view. She tackles the legal issues but in a way that is compelling, avoiding thankfully the obvious pitfalls. Her account time and again shows Marshall Hall’s incredible emotional intelligence when dealing with his client and the jury. She also demonstrates his strong mastery of the finer points of medical evidence, having inherited an interest in the area from his doctor father.

Smith’s account is no hagiography. She displays great affection and respect for the subject, but she does not shy away from his weaknesses – which undoubtedly cost him a seat on the bench. A great and intuitive advocate he invested his soul in the defence of his clients. An honourable man, Marshall Hall frequently helped those at the beginning of their careers or those who crossed his path who needed a hand.

Twice an MP he never displayed any great interest in or aptitude for politics. Instead, his appearances in court led to thousands of people packing the streets around the courthouse in which he was appearing. His original career ambition was to be a priest, but perhaps aware even at that early stage in his own life he abandoned that ambition and after a brief career in the City he swiftly turned to the law. He liked earning and spending money. From a young age he traded and collected jewels and precious things. More than once this sideline helped through lean times at the Bar.

Sally Smith draws out all this and more in this admirable biography. It tells us about the man, the age in which he lived, the lawyer and the law – and you learn much about all four.

A Law Unto Himself, by Sally Smith, is published by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill Publishing