Would You Defend Jack The Ripper?

Let me ask you a question.

Suppose that you are/were a lawyer – and if you are a lawyer please ignore the “suppose” instruction – and the police had done something that they didn’t actually do – but which, since we are dealing here in supposition, we will, for the purpose of this article, say that they did  do – they had caught Jack the Ripper.

Now, suppose that the newspapers and the community at large were aware of the fact, which would, let’s be honest, be the talk of the country, if not the World at large.

All the i’s have been dotted and the t’s been crossed, the case against him has been prepared and a date for his trial for the murders has been set.

Sitting in your office, perhaps reading abut the arrest and the case in the daily papers, you get a knock on your door, and a colleague enters, somewhat sheepishly.

Shuffling from foot to foot, eyes downcast, he, or she, stammers, nervously, that Jack the Ripper had heard that you are the best criminal defence lawyer in the business and he has requested that you defend him at his upcoming trial at the Old Bailey.

Would you accept the case?


Let me preface your response by  outlining the set up of the legal system in England (and Wales).

There are two branches of lawyers in this country, solicitors and barristers.

Going into great detail about the difference between the two is beyond the remit of this article.

In brief (that’s a joke for any lawyers reading this!), the basic difference between barristers and solicitors is that barristers mainly appear in court as advocates on behalf of clients, whereas solicitors mainly work outside court.

There is a lot more to it than that, but in essence, were Jack the Ripper to be about to go on trial, he would be defended by a barrister.

The most recognisable feature that differentiates barristers from solicitors is in their style of dress.

Barristers are the lawyers that wear a wig and a robe when they appear in court. They are, on the whole, self employed, they work in chambers, and they must belong to one of London’s four Inns of Court.

Solicitors, by contrast, work for a firm of solicitors.

Traditionally, a client does not approach a barrister directly, but rather goes to a solicitor who then engages the barrister and briefs him, or her, on the client’s behalf.


With the two branches of lawyer duly explained, let me return to my original question. Would you take on the case of defending Jack the Ripper, should that nervous colleague turn up in your chambers to inform you that the world’s most infamous serial killer had requested your expertise in defending him.

Now any barrister, or law student, will tell you that one of the most frequent questions they get asked when they attend a social function is “would you defend a murderer?” or “how could you defend a murderer?” or “how could you defend somebody when you know they are guilty?” –  okay, I know that, technically, that was three questions.

Those of us with no legal training might shrug our shoulders, assume an air of moral superiority and reply haughtily –  “most certainly not.”

But, thanks to the Bar Standard Handbook (the barristers code of conduct) a barrister does not have the luxury of taking the moral high ground and declining to represent a client, however odious he might find a particular client to be, and irrespective of her, or his, personal feelings about the offence with which the client is charged.


Aside from the fact that the basic premise of English justice, is that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, there is a section of the code of conduct to which all barristers must adhere which is known as the cab rank rule.”

As the name implies, it is based on the premise that, just as a cab waiting on the rank, must take a passenger – irrespective of how repulsive they might find the passenger, or that fact that they want to go south of the River Thames – so a barrister must take a case, or accept a brief, to use the correct term,  in any field in which he, or she,  professes to practise, irrespective of the source of payment and irrespective of
the identity of the client, the nature of the case and her, or his, own opinion or belief as to the character, reputation, guilt etc. of his client.

So, were Jack the Ripper to request the services of say – and let’s just pull the name of a random barrister out of a hat here – Montague John Druiit, then Druitt would, under the cab rank rule, be unable to turn him down, if he happens to be available, and if the case is in a field in which he professes to be competent.


Of course, the rule is in place for a simple reason, to ensure that any defendant, irrespective of  what they are supposed to have done, has access to adequate and competent legal representation, no matter how odious or publicly unpopular they are.

However, it also ensure that a defendant doesn’t just get a lawyer to represent them, but rather the lawyer of their choice.

Interestingly, the rule doesn’t work both ways, and a client does not have to accept the first barrister that comes to his defence, so to speak.


The rule also has an advantage as far as a barrister is concerned.

Because barristers must accept a case, it enables them to be ale to distance themselves from the views and conduct of their clients, and enables them to avoid  any social stigma that might be incurred as a result of them defending a particularly unpopular client.

Since the media is well aware of the rule, for example, it rarely happens that a defending barrister is pilloried in the press for defending what public opinion might perceive as the indefensible.

So, when the barrister sits down at that dinner table, and one of the guests quizzes her, or him, about how they could justify defending a social pariah in a court of law, the barrister is able to set down his fork, assume a sagely air and explain that her, or she, would be obliged to do so as it would be his professional duty  to do so and it is important for the proper functioning of the legal system that everyone – even an infamous serial killer – is able to obtain competent legal representation.

So, in answer to the question, “would you defend Jack the Ripper”, the answer would have to be – I would have no choice!