Threatening a Barrister, 1870

From the Dublin Weekly Nation, 5 February 1870:


In the Dublin Court of Queen’s Bench on the 31st ult. Dr Battersby QC, who was counsel in an action of ejectment, read the following letter which he had received by post, from the nearest post town (Kells) to the locality in which the lands are situated:

‘To Counsellor Battersby.  Sir – Before suggesting to you a prudent advice or counsel which we advise you to take, we deem it expedient to inform you that we have considered all the circumstances connected with your profession.  Still, we hold as Irish doctrine, which shall in this case and in future be carried into effect, that any man who participates in the eviction of any individual Irishman, even in the remotest degree, by profession or otherwise, shall meet their death by virtue of the revolver as soon as opportunity presents itself.  Therefore, as your honour was represented to us as being very kind and indulgent, we think it necessary to furnish you with this timely warning, unless you withdraw from proceeding with the case of Nicholson against Tanham during this term, mark the consequences which shall await you.  We would be glad if you would take counsel in time, for your own and family’s sake.   Have yourself blown from the mouth of a blunderbuss with the exterminator and spare your own life. – (Signed, on behalf of the defendant) A. B. C.’

Dr Battersby added that he was bound to direct the attention of the court to the letter, as the plaintiff in the action was badly wounded, a lady who was with him was shot at, and his coachman had been shot dead during the trial. 

The Lord Chief Justice – I think, Mr Battersby, you have acted very properly in bringing under notice that letter – that infamous letter which you have received.  I have no doubt that the writer of that would commit the crime stated in it.  If we could reach the party from whom that letter emanated, we would know how to deal with him for a contempt of court, but I know of no punishment this court could award that would be severe enough for the writer of such a letter as that.  It means that there is to be no law in this country for the adjustment of the people’s rights, and I believe, with the learned counsel, that, considering the locality from which it has come, and those awful circumstances just mentioned in regard to the plaintiff in this case, that what has been threatened in that letter addressed to the learned counsel might, if opportunity offered, be verified.  All I can say is that it is not by the punishment we could award he should suffer, but he ought to expiate his crimes upon the scaffold; or, as the mercy of that law which he does not understand exempts him from that punishment, the enormity of his offense should be marked by penal servitude for the natural term of his life.

Mr Justice O’Brien – I entirely concur in what has fallen from my Lord Chief Justice, with regard to the offence of the person who sent that letter, I cannot use a phrase too strong to condemn the infatuation that could suggest to any person such criminality.

 The Lord Chief Justice – I can only add my conviction that that letter could not produce the slightest impression upon any member of that learned and honourable profession to which Mr Battersby belongs.

Mr Justice O’Brien – The writer seems to have overlooked the fact that the people of this country are deeply interested in the administration of justice; and as it is their privilege to be able to select from amongst the members of that profession advocate for their rights, nothing could be more fatal than the intimidation of the members of the Bar.

 Mr Justice Fitzgerald – I fully concur in the observations of my learned brothers, and I must say that he writer or writers of that infamous letter to Mr Battersby quite mistake his character if they imagine that such a threat, or any other threat, could for one moment divert him to the extent of one hair’s breadth from the discharge of his duty in any case which he has taken up; and I feel morally convinced that I may apply that observation to the whole Bar.  These parties are mistaken if they suppose that, with either the Bar or Bench, a threat of that nature could in the slightest degree influence the course of justice.

Mr Justice George – I think the learned counsel who has brought this matter under the notice of the court deserves not only the thanks of the court and the profession of which he is an honoured member, but of the community at large, for having unlawfully and fearlessly brought to the notice of the public an offence of this kind which has become so rife in the country.  It is a fearful evil and mischief when such offences should be committed at all, but it is infinitely worse when they are turned in a direction to which they should have no reference.  We all know these things have been applied in land disputes, but this is the first instance in which this abominable system has been brought under the notice of the public in the nature of an attempt to interfere with the ordinary relations of life and the administration of justice.  I think when a man has acted in discharge of his duty, when a soldier serves his Queen, or a barrister does his duty by his client, he is not to be made the victim of the abominable system of intimidation which prevails to such a lamentable extent in this country.

Mr Butt QC – I would ask your lordships’ permission to say one word with reference to the statement in the latter part of the letter.  My client is present in court, and he instructed me that he has heard that Mr Battersby had received such a letter purporting to be sent on behalf of him, and he took the first opportunity of denying such a statement, that he either heard of or knew of such a letter.  I think it is the first time in the history of this country that an attempt to threaten an advocate has been resorted to for discharging his duty.  It may be my lot to appear for the landlord tomorrow, as I have appeared for the tenant in this; and all I can say is that the receipt of such a letter as that could in no wise deter me from the discharge of my duty; and certainly, were we to judge from the character of the Irish people, they would not sanction for a moment any attempt to interfere with a n advocate in the discharge of his duty.

The Lord Chief Justice – The acts of a people must ultimately be judged by their conduct.

The matter then dropped.”

The case the subject of all the upset, Nicholson v Tanham, in which Dr Battersby acted for the plaintiff, involved the interesting legal point of whether a notice to quit handed to a family member of a tenant who was non compos mentis at the house of that tenant could be said to have been validly served on the tenant by his client.

The Court of Queen’s Bench, in a judgment delivered on the same day as the above, held that the notice to quit had not been validly served.  Their decision, however, was later reversed by the Court of Exchequer Chamber, and this reversal upheld on appeal to the House of Lords in Tanham v Nicholson (1871 – 72) L.R. 5 H.L. 561, so that Dr Battersby’s client ultimately succeeded in his claim that the notice to quit was valid.  

Dr Battersby, a contemporary of Daniel O’Connell, was 70 years old at the date of the above.  He died of natural causes at his home at 20 Lower Leeson Street a decade later, remaining in busy practice until shortly before his death. 

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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