New Zealand Law Society - In Defence of Hanlon, the kiwi TV series about Alf Hanlon KC

In Defence of Hanlon, the kiwi TV series about Alf Hanlon KC

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After reminiscing about a London-based law series and looking into an old crime series set in the Scottish Highlands, Craig Stephen now investigates a programme that was filmed much closer to home. And was very much real.

Seven episodes of Hanlon aired between July and September 1985, all of which were based on the legal life of Dunedin law legend Alf Hanlon KC.

Those episodes were called In Defence of, with the defendants’ name following. They were, in order: Minnie Dean, Hugh Sweeney, Clements, Thomas Caradoc Kerry, Stott & Bromley and Shue Hock, with the final episode simply called In Defence and Hanlon himself appearing to be centre of attention.

The series was written by Ken Catran and the writer also published a book Hanlon – A Casebook published by BCNZ enterprises to coincide with the airing of the series.

Catran admits that when he first delved into the life and career of Alfred Charles Hanlon he knew almost nothing about the man. This ignorance is something he would have shared with most New Zealanders.

Hanlon was born in Dunedin in 1866 to Irish immigrants. He was a law clerk for six years before being admitted in 1888 and after setting up in practice on his own – as he could not afford to go into partnership – he endured months of waiting for clients. But he found the most likely visitors to his tiny office were debt collectors.

Catran tells of Hanlon’s first work experiences, taking on cases involving the poor and the working class of Dunedin, and being ignored or held in disdain by judges.

Minnie Dean

The most famous case in the series – and indeed of Alf Hanlon’s career – was that of Southland woman Minnie Dean, who, in 1895, was charged with murdering two infants in her care.

Catran notes that Hanlon would have taken on the case with some trepidation. “There was almost certainly no money in it and it would no doubt be a long, and very difficult trial.”

After ensuring, with the assistance of Invercargill solicitor Josiah Hanan, that Minnie’s husband Charles Dean would not face trial over the murders, Hanlon prepared to defend Mrs Dean alone.

“The case, the notoriety, and the overwhelming social implications of baby-farming had assumed greater proportions than Hanlon ever dreamed they would. It was now not just Crown against Dean but society itself against her … the same society that made her baby-farming activities possible.”

‘Baby-farming’ refers to the practice of the time of a woman looking after children who had been born out of wedlock, and the shame of such a birth forced many women to have the child adopted. Hanlon – A Casebook notes that “all too often that new home was a grave”.

Hanlon – played by David Gwillim – gives an inspired manslaughter defence but is undermined by the judge’s direction to the jury.

Judge J. S. Williams told the jury that if they accepted Hanlon’s contention that the death of one of the children in Minnie Dean’s care amounted to manslaughter only – it would be nothing short of “a weak-kneed compromise”. The all-male jury concurred. Dean, played by Sylvia Rands in the episode, was sentenced to death and would be the only woman to be hanged in this country.

After the trial, Hanlon vowed that no other client would suffer the same fate and he retired with a respectable record.

The episode gained an Emmy nomination and contributed to a re-evaluation of Dean’s conviction.

Thomas Kerry and the Ariadne

Another notable case for Hanlon – and the fourth episode in the series – was the charge against Thomas Kerry and others for allegedly casting away the yacht Ariadne at the mouth of the Waitaki River in 1901. Hanlon and Charles Skerrett (later Chief Justice) appeared for Kerry, the vessel’s owner.

The Crown’s case relied on a document signed by Kerry agreeing to pay the captain to have the ship wrecked. Hanlon suspected the document to be a forgery. So, using proto forensic evidence, he had a photograph made of the exhibit enlarged and shown on a screen, revealing that the incriminating words had been added to the original document. The Crown counsel withdrew the document as evidence, and an acquittal was assured.

In other episodes Hanlon defends Hugh Sweeney after bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of a woman. His next case is to defend two men (Stott and Bromley) in a case involving personal tragedy and racial prejudice.

Hanlon also defends Shue Hock in a case where the barrister finds himself at the crossroads of law and love.

And finally, Hanlon finds that all his courtroom skills cannot aid him in a personal defence and decision.

With thanks to Zak Reddan of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision in Wellington and Natasha Harris of NZ On Screen for their assistance in the research into this subject.

The 94-minute Minnie Dean episode is available to view through the search function of the NZ On Screen website.

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