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The Rt. Hon. Mr. Justice Aubrey Melford Stevenson

  • Category(s): Death Penalty Essays
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A Judge of the highest calibre and an upholder of the fairness of English Justice


Why do I write of this departed High Court Judge sitting from 1957 to 1979, of which the first four years were spent in the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division, and the remaining years in our Queens Bench Division? He was an eminent senior Counsel becoming Kings Counsel in 1943.

He served in wartime in the army from 1940 until 1945 as a Deputy Judge Advocate with the rank of Major. His particular call to arms was to preside as Judge Advocate at the trial of the German U-Boat Captain, who ordered his crew to fire upon the survivors of a ship they had sunk who were waiting to be saved. This atrocity was committed in WWII and the War Crime trial was in 1945 at Hamburg. The naval Captain and his two co-accused junior officers were convicted and executed by firing squad.

The Judicial career of this redoubtable English Judge had begun in earnest. He, like so many of his brother Judges of the 1940 to 1975 epoch, did not lack composure and firm mettle when up against those who faced the final penalty, or life imprisonment.


We have here a senior Judge prepared to be outspoken and court unpopularity not only with the press, but the Bar and his fellow Judges. What was his objective? Not to attract attention for the sake of it, nor to build a reputation as a tough speaking Judge. (He defended Ruth Ellis and reportedly felt she should have been reprieved.) He was surprising, as it may appear, no publicity seeker.


He was born of a clergyman’s wife on the 17th October 1902 the only son. His maternal Uncle was editor of The Times from 1919-1922 – always known in those days as “the Thunderer” for its leader column. He died on Boxing Day 1987 at his home in St Leonards on Sea.

An English High Court Judge in a serious criminal trial or sentencing case has a binding duty to, not only remove the cobwebs of prejudice that may surround the case, but strike to the core of the issues factual, legal and sentencing. He must have the confidence of a highly ranked Judge and above all stride the moral high ground. Judges in England demonstrate these qualities to this day. There can be no criminal code without real morality. This is what Melford was concerned with, not prudishness.

He was a Judge who stood up for the beliefs and morals of the common man. He was no fake politician nevertheless, a Judge of his Seniority in criminal cases must reflect the thinking of this man in the street or Justice falls to the ground. The law is there to serve Justice and the people deserve Justice. Melford fundamentally was in tune with the English public – of that there can be no doubt.

4. The Ruth Ellis Case – 1955

A very famous and tragic case tried by the Rt. Hon. Mr Justice Cecil Havers. We are told Melford told the Jury:

“Let me make this abundantly plain: there is no question here but this woman shot this man – You will not hear one word from me – or from the lady herself – questioning that.”

I can well believe he said that – he was always to the point. Ruth Ellis had no defence to this Capital Murder indictment as a recently deceased Old Bailey Judge confirmed to me not long ago. The Jury convicted her of shooting her lover after a retirement of just 23 minutes. The trial Judge had no choice but to pass sentence of death as the law then stood. He did not fail in his judicial duty nevertheless.


The controversy over the right to refuse to give evidence, and commentary upon that failure to give evidence: Melford would not be bossed around by academics or lawyers of lesser rank. What he believed right he stuck to as all good men should do. His view was the accused who declined to give evidence risked the jury drawing an inference of guilt from that silence at the close of the Crown case: as Sir Thomas More elucidated centuries ago.

The nonsense made of Melford’s clear thinking on this issue by the academics is regrettable. Never oversimplify or complicate our criminal law and this is good advice to parliamentary draftsmen, legislators and the Cabinet. We would do well to reduce the mountain of statute law and return to the pure stream of English Criminal Justice epitomised by the Rt. Hon. Mr Justice Melford Stevenson in his summings-up and decisions at first instance, and with his brother Judges in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division.

6. Conclusion

Mr Justice Melford Stevenson had one abiding characteristic, namely honesty. Without that quality you will make a bad lawyer and Judge. Honesty requires the preparedness to break new ground and go out on your own. This was the essence of Melford and his sincerity was his honesty. These qualities in one single charism mattered far more than his turn of phrase. What more can I say? Only that I believe in brothers at law alive and dead. Melford set a good example of that brotherhood. What is more, I believe I have been joined in to his brethren when I read he supported the death sentence publicly even after his retirement. I will not forget this lesson he has taught me and I a criminal lawyer from 1975-2000 in London.