Patrick Devlin, Baron Devlin

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Patrick Arthur Devlin, Baron Devlin, PC (25 November 1905 – 9 August 1992) was a British judge who served as a Law Lord. In 1959, he headed a Commission of Inquiry, the Devlin Commission, which reported on the State of Emergency declared by the colonial governor of Nyasaland. 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] Devlin is also well known for his part in the debate around homosexuality in British law; in response to the Wolfenden report, he argued, contrary to H. L. A. Hart, that a common public morality should be upheld.


Patrick Devlin was born in Chislehurst, Kent. His father was an Irish Roman Catholic architect whose own father came from County Tyrone, and his mother was a Scottish 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 the actor William Devlin).[2] 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 United Kingdom 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.[3] 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 ..."[3]

After retirement, Lord 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.[4]

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

Celebrated cases[edit]

John Bodkin Adams[edit]

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  Edith Alice Morrell an elderly widow and Gertrude Hullett, a middle-aged woman whose husband had died four months before her death.

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 later 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.[5] Devlin however considered the Morrell case, although six years old, was a stronger than that of Mrs Hullett, as Mrs Hullet had clearly committed suicide and the extent, if any, of Adams' involvement in this was uncertain.[6]

Bodkin Adams was tried on the Morrell charge. Devlin considered that the prosecution had not prepared its case adequately as the Attorney-General was a busy minister and the next most senior member of his team Melford Stevenson did not make up for his leader's absence.[7] It had not presented a coherent case, particularly on motive, and in his summing up Devlin said that the defence case was a manifestly strong one.[8] He directed the jury not to find for the prosecution unless they rejected all the defence arguments, and accepted this was a summing up for an acquittal.[9] Adams then found not guilty on the Morrell charge. Controversially, the prosecutor – Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller – claimed in parliament that the acquittal was the result of Devlin's judicial misdirection[10] and even more controversially, he entered a nolle prosequi regarding the Hullett charge. Devlin later termed this "an abuse of process", done because the prosecution’s case was deficient, and left Adams under the suspicion that there might have been some truth in talk of mass murder.[11]

Devlin also received a phone call from Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard at the time defence and prosecution were making their closing speeches. In the event of Adams being acquitted, Goddard suggested that Devlin might consider an application to release 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.[12] 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.[13] Home Office pathologist Francis Camps suspected Adams of causing 163 deaths in total.[13]

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[edit]

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".[14]

Wolfenden report[edit]

After the Wolfenden report in 1957, Devlin argued, initially in his 1959 Maccabean Lecture in Jurisprudence at the British Academy,[15][16] 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.[17][18]

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".[19] 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".[19]

Devlin Commission: Report of the Nyasaland Commission of Inquiry[edit]

In 1959, soon after the declaration of the state of emergency in Nyasaland, the British cabinet under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the disturbances there and their policing, and appointed Devlin as chairman. Devlin was not Macmillan's choice for chairman, and he later criticised Devlin's appointment, criticising him 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".[13]

In response to an early draft of the commission's report, which was highly critical of repressive police methods, 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".[13] Despite Macmillan's's rejection of the Devlin Report, once Iain Macleod became Colonial Secretary later in 1959, he approached Devlin for advice.[20]


  • 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. ^ Devlin, Patrick; "Easing the Passing", London, The Bodley Head, 1985
  2. ^ "Obituary: Lord Devlin". The Independent. 10 August 1992. 
  3. ^ a b Times, 11 June 1985, p. 10
  4. ^ Honoré, Tony (2004), "Devlin, Patrick Arthur, Baron Devlin (1905–1992)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  5. ^ Hallworth, p. 41, 58.
  6. ^ Devlin, (1985), pp. 25, 179.
  7. ^ Devlin, (1985), p. 121.
  8. ^ Devlin, (1985), pp. 167, 177.
  9. ^ Devlin, (1985), pp. 167, 177.
  10. ^ Devlin, (1985), p. 187.
  11. ^ Devlin, (1985), pp. 180-1.
  12. ^ Devlin, (1985), p. 178.
  13. ^ a b c d Cullen 2006, p. ?
  14. ^ Ballot Box to Jury Box. 
  15. ^ "Maccabaean Lectures in Jurisprudence". 
  16. ^ “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.”
  17. ^ "Law on Homosexuals", The Times, The Times Digital Archive (56318), p. 13, 11 May 1965, retrieved 20 July 2012  (subscription required)
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ a b Feinberg, J. (1987). "Some Unswept Debris from the Hart-Devlin Debate". Synthese. 72 (2): 249–275. doi:10.1007/BF00413641. 
  20. ^ C Baker, (1997). Nyasaland, 1959: A Police State? p. 23.


  • Baker, Colin., Nyasaland, 1959: A Police State?, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2. 
  • Cullen, Pamela V. (2006), A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, Elliott & Thompson, ISBN 1-904027-19-9 
  • Devlin, Patrick (1985), Easing the passing: The trial of Doctor John Bodkin Adams, The Bodley Head, ISBN 0-571-13993-0 
  • Hallworth, Rodney (1983), Where there's a will... The sensational life of Dr John Bodkin Adams, Capstan Press, ISBN 0-946797-00-5 

External links[edit]

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