Sir Patrick Hastings (1880-1952) served as one of Britain's leading trial attorneys from the Edwardian era until well into the 1940s. Considered a brilliant legal mind and an impressive jury persuader, Hastings was involved in some of England's most highly publicized criminal cases of his day. As a young man studying for the Bar, he supported himself by working as a theater critic and noted later that this employment had served him well. Every trial lawyer should study the art of drama, his biographer H. Montgomery Hyde quoted Hastings as saying. "If he does, his speeches will be shorter, his judges will be grateful, and his own success may correspondingly increase."
As the result of his Irish lineage, noted British barrister Sir Patrick Hastings was named after the patron saint of Ireland when he was born on St. Patrick's Day (March 17), 1880. At the time, Hastings' family lived in the Regent's Park area of London, but they moved several times during Patrick's youth. His father, Alfred Hastings, was a solicitor, although he failed to establish much of a law practice and was perennially involved in spurious business schemes. "Bankruptcy in my family was not a misfortune, it was a habit," Hastings wrote later in life, according to Hyde. Hastings was often present at late-night parties during which his father and friends, fueled with strong drink, railed over financial matters and various legal woes. The youthful Hastings listened, and privately reasoned that the mens' flimsy arguments would likely never stand the scrutiny of a court of law.
Sent to boarding school at the age of ten, Hastings disliked school's harsh discipline and was physically beset by asthma. He attended the Charterhouse School next, a well-known private academy for boys in England. Such schools were considered training ground for a career in politics or the military, or as a preliminary to an elite education, and were infamous for their insularity and unspoken codes of behavior. Again, at Charterhouse he endured a miserable few years and left the school at age 16. Then, on the heels of another financial blunder by his father, with his older brother Archie and his mother, Hastings went to Europe. It was still a time when one could live cheaply in the countryside, and Hastings and his brother learned to hunt hedgehogs while living on the island of Corsica.
From Bleak Childhood to Study of Law
Hastings's fortunes changed after he served in the British Army in South Africa during England's Boer War. He returned to England in November of 1901 and resolved to become a barrister. The first step was admittance to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court, as a student. Next came a period of three years during which Hastings was expected to dine regularly at the Middle Temple, pass occasional exams, and then pay a rather large sum of 100 pounds for formal entrance. Hastings was penniless and paid for these costs by working as a journalist and writing a theater gossip column and theater reviews. He also worked for a time for a civil servant and regularly put in eighteen-hour workdays. Since he could not afford to buy his law books, much of his studying was done at the Middle Temple library. Hastings passed his exam in 1904 and paid the required entrance sum from his savings. For the ceremony, however, he was forced to buy his wig and robe on credit.
Hastings apprenticed for established attorneys and attended court sessions daily to learn how to argue a case. One of his mentors provided sound advice for a future trial lawyer, reminding Hastings to never ask a question of a witness on the stand unless he was already assured of its answer. In 1910 one of his superiors was made judge and offered Hastings the opportunity to take over his practice, generously deferring the rent until the young lawyer became more solvent. It was a stroke of good fortune, for Hastings by this time had a wife and growing family to support. His practice was confined to the County Court system until a 1912 police murder case helped make his name. "The Case of the Hooded Man," also known as the Eastbourne Murder, attracted national interest. It involved an attempted jewel thief, a dead police inspector, the betrayal of the suspect by a friend, and an unmarried, pregnant girlfriend. Hastings's client, the accused thief and murderer, was taken to and from court with his face covered by a veil and was billed in the press as "the Hooded Man." Although Hastings failed to gain his clients' acquittal, the case earned him a reputation as a brilliant strategist and skilled debater.
A Succession of Sensational Cases
Hastings moved to the High Courts just before World War I. At the height of the anti-German sentiment stemming from the European conflict, he won another highly publicized case involving a noted civil servant and a man named Gruban who, though born in Germany, had become a naturalized British citizen and a well-to-do machine-tool manufacturer. Gruban was befriended, then subsequently betrayed by a member of parliament, who attempted to extort money from Gruban, and then used his influence to have the business owner interned. Hastings won the case, and the M.P.'s career was duly ended. In 1919 Hastings became King's Counsel and added the honorary "K.C." after his name.
The same year Hastings became King's Counsel he also took on another sensational case, this one involving Britain's war effort. Violet Douglas-Pennant, the daughter of Welsh lord, was a highly regarded, though often personally disliked, public servant with a long list of charitable posts to her name. She was made commandant of the newly created Women's Royal Air Force in the spring of 1918, but was fired two months later. Douglas-Pennant claimed the women's service camps, which adjoined those of the men's air force, were dens of licentious behavior. As King's Counsel, Hastings represented Colonel Bersey, the commanding officer of one London-area camp named by Douglas-Pennant. Against charges that Bersey himself was party to some of the indiscretions, Hastings was able to prove Douglas-Pennant's accusations without merit. His closing arguments suggested that, in the end, the colonel would not be the one disgraced; rather it would be "the person who brought the whole of this dirty, filthy story into prominence solely for her own ends, and that is Miss Douglas-Pennant herself!"
Brief Interludes in Politics, Playwrighting
By age 40 Hastings enjoyed a very successful practice. He was elected a member of Parliament for the fledgling Labour Party in the early 1920s, and since he was the only barrister of senior rank in the House of Commons at the time, he became party spokesperson on legal matters. This political dalliance led to a brief stint as attorney general in the government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour government in British history. Hastings disliked the grind of the job intensely, finding himself involved in resolving a boundary dispute between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, as well as leftover war matters. He sometimes worked from seven in the morning until well past midnight, recalling: "Nothing that I began was I ever allowed to finish, and nothing was ever finished until something else was begun," according to Hyde. "Being an Attorney-General as it was in those days is my idea of hell."
In the early 1920s two cases came before the House of Lords for final decision that set legal precedent at the time. One was a divorce case so sensational that Parliament passed a statute banning the publication of details from divorce proceedings until the matter was decided. In the matter, a woman had become pregnant and her husband denied paternity; the first trial ended in a hung jury, and hinged upon the question of whether a husband's claim that there had been no relations—though they had shared the same bed—was admissible in court. In another well-publicized case, a Roman Catholic physician attacked noted birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes, who then sued him for libel. Though the doctor's book did not mention Stopes by name in its pages, he did claim in its pages that a female doctor's practice in a London slum involved harmful "experiments" on the poor. Hastings defended Stopes, and the jury returned a mixed verdict on the charges; the judge then decided in favor of the physician, but that decision was overturned on appeal, which appeal was subsequently overturned in the House of Lords.
"The Case of the Shrunken Heads"
In the 1920s, Hastings suffered increasingly from bouts of ill health, and he eventually retired from politics altogether. He enjoyed a second career as a playwright, and his first drama, The River, was produced in London in 1925. Set in Africa, the play earned bad reviews, but Hastings nonetheless sold the film rights to Hollywood. Another play, Scotch Mist, starred Tallullah Bankhead in its London production, and though critics panned it as well, it was a box-office success after being denounced as immoral by the bishop of London. In 1927 Hastings and his law practice were once again the subject of newspaper headlines when he was involved in a libel suit brought by a well-known explorer against London's Daily Express newspaper. The newspaper claimed that the explorer had participated in a highway robbery hoax in order to gain publicity for the Monomark, an identification device made by a company in which he had a vested interest. The explorer's missing briefcase, containing shrunken heads from his exotic travels, aroused much press attention.
Defended Libeled Royal's Honor
In 1934 Hastings took the case of Princess Irena Alexandrovna Youssopoff in her suit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Princess Youssopoff was the niece of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, and her husband, Prince Felix, was the man who masterminded the infamous 1916 death of Grigori Rasputin, the strange monk who came to hold great sway over Russia's doomed royal family. Prince Felix, descended from one Russia's wealthiest and venerable families, was sent to the country for his part in the crime, and when the Russian Revolution began several months later, he and his wife fled Russia. The death of the mystic was fictionalized in the M-G-M film Rasputin the Mad Monk. The names of the Youssopoffs were changed for the film, and they were portrayed as an engaged couple instead of married. Princess Irena was further dramatized as a supporter of the monk, and there was a hint of a romantic affair. The Youssopoffs were appalled when the film was released, and Hastings's compelling arguments in the princess's favor caused the jury to award her 25,000 pounds, one of the largest damage awards in British legal history at the time.
Hastings' prominent position brought offers of judgeships, but he declined them. During World War II he served briefly in the Royal Air Force's intelligence corps before poor health sent him home. He was elected Treasurer of the Middle Temple in 1940 and witnessed the Battle of Britain from his East Sussex farm. His playwrighting continued with a 1942 production of The Admiralty Regrets, a naval drama. In the immediate postwar era, Hastings argued one of the last of his greatly publicized cases. This one involved Harold Laski, an esteemed economist and top Labour Party executive. Laski was the architect of much of Britain's socialist-inspired programs under a new Labour government which nationalized many vital industries and established a generous social-service network. Laski campaigned for Labour candidates during the general election of 1946, and in a controversial speech, as a letter to the editor of a Nottingham newspaper claimed, commented that reform in Britain might have to take place by force. "If we cannot have [the reforms] by fair means, we shall use violence to obtain them," Laski was quoted by the newspaper as allegedly stating. The letter to the newspaper was written by a Conservative Party M.P., and the statement amounted to treason. In Laski's suit against the Newark Advertiser, the paper giving the account of the meeting, Hastings successfully defended the newspaper.
Hastings retired in 1948 after a mild stroke. One of his sons died in World War II, and the other moved to Kenya. Visiting Africa with his wife, Hastings suffered another stroke, then lost all his personal possessions in a fire at his son's home. He returned to England, his health declining further. Hastings died at his London home on February 26, 1952.
Hyde, H. Montgomery, Sir Patrick Hastings: His Life and Cases, Heinemann, 1960.