Tribute to the defence solicitor said to have enjoyed a higher profile than any other lawyer in Scotland

Joseph Beltrami

15 May 1932 – 24 February 2015

Joe Beltrami was in practice for approximately 50 years, and for most of that time enjoyed the highest profile of any criminal defence solicitor in Scotland. Indeed, it can perhaps be said that during the 1960s and 1970s, he enjoyed a higher profile than any other lawyer in Scotland. He was simply known and recognised as “Big Joe”.

Joe Beltrami was born in Rutherglen and brought up in the Briggait in Glasgow, only yards from the High Court in Saltmarket where so many of his greatest cases took place. He attended St Aloysius College and then the University of Glasgow, where he obtained a BL in 1953. He had considerable difficulty obtaining an apprenticeship, submitting some 30 applications, but he persisted and was able to qualify as a solicitor. He then opened his own practice in a single room office in Buchanan Street, Glasgow in 1958.

He established his reputation rapidly as a criminal defence solicitor. There were only a limited number of solicitors who specialised in criminal law in an era when there was very limited public funding for criminal defence work. In those days, capital punishment still existed for certain forms of murder, and it is said that Joe represented 12 clients facing capital murder charges. None of the 12 were hanged. His most celebrated capital case was the trial of Walter Scott Ellis in 1961. Ellis was charged with the murder by shooting of a taxi driver, John Walkinshaw, in Castlemilk, but was unanimously acquitted on a not proven verdict.

A well-publicised but notorious case was the trial of Paddy Meehan for the murder of Rachel Ross in Ayr in 1969. This resulted in a conviction, but the circumstances in which Meehan was convicted were controversial and a campaign over a period of seven years eventually succeeded in persuading the Queen to grant Meehan a Royal Pardon. This is believed to be the first Royal Pardon granted in a murder case in Scottish legal history.

Joe also had the unique distinction of obtaining a Royal Pardon for another client, Maurice Swanson, who was wrongly convicted of an armed robbery at a bank at St George’s Cross, Glasgow in 1973.

It is reported that during his professional career, Joe was instructed in no fewer than 350 murder cases. He was associated with two advocates in particular during his career, whom he instructed in numerous high profile cases, Nicholas (Nicky) Fairbairn QC, who became a Conservative MP in 1974, and subsequently Donald Findlay QC.

Not all of his clients were human. He famously “represented” Hercules the bear in Lochmaddy Sheriff Court after the bear went missing in the Outer Hebrides for several weeks.

Joe Beltrami possessed a number of qualities that set him apart from other criminal lawyers. He had a reputation for the thoroughness of his preparation. He inspired great confidence in all his clients, but above all, hehad an uncanny judgment that enabled him to “read” cases to immediately spot strengths and weaknesses and to identify cases that could be won from those that were likely to be lost.

Joe was married to Delia. They had three sons, all of whom became lawyers and of whom he was immensely proud. Edwin, his oldest son, who is Chief Crown Prosecutor in Wales, delivered a moving eulogy at his funeral. His other two sons are Adrian, a commercial QC in London, and Jason, who, like his father, is a criminal defence solicitor in Glasgow. Our condolences are extended to them.

The Author
Murray Macara
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