Obituary: Joseph Beltrami, SSC, BL, lawyer

Criminal lawyer involved in some of the most sensational trials in the 20th century. Picture: TSPL
Criminal lawyer involved in some of the most sensational trials in the 20th century. Picture: TSPL
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BORN: 15 May, 1932, in Rutherglen. Died: 24 February, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 83.

Joseph Beltrami was a much respected member of the Scottish legal profession. He founded Beltrami and Company in 1958 and appeared for the defence in many sensational trials in Scotland including those of Johnny Ramensky, Colin Beattie, Jimmy Boyle, and Arthur Thompson – all of whom were accused of serious crimes in the 1980s. His reputation as a criminal defence lawyer was unsurpassed in Scotland and it became familiar to hear cries of “Get me Beltrami” from the cells.

Beltrami was highly regarded by colleagues in the profession. One said of him: “He is an institution, not only in Glasgow, but in Scotland.” Beltrami was awarded an Honorary Life Membership of the Law Society of Scotland.

Beltrami was involved in 12 murder trials before the hangman’s noose was abolished in 1965. None of the people he was representing was hanged but, he admitted: “I had nightmares about clients being led to the gallows.”

Sir Ming Campbell appeared in court with Beltrami at the beginning of his career as a QC. “Joe had an enormous presence in court: he simply dominated the room,” he told The Scotsman yesterday. “As a solicitor he often instructed Nicholas Fairbairn and the two made a formidable team. Not a likely coupling but they worked exceptionally well together.

“On occasions I was his junior and I learnt to appreciate Joe’s brilliant court craft. He was articulate, persuasive and had a commanding grasp of the case in hand. Joe was, as Scottish lawyers might say, ‘Very good on his feet’.”

Joseph (known to colleagues and friends affectionately as Joe) Beltrami came from a Scottish Italian family. His father Joseph originally came from Switzerland and ran a fish restaurant at Glasgow Cross. He attended St Aloysius’ College in Glasgow, leaving in 1950 with the intention of becoming a teacher. But a friend told Beltrami that there were good financial prospects in the law and he switched to reading law at Glasgow University.

On graduating Beltrami signed on as an apprentice with Baird Smith Barclay and Muirhead (now Maclay Murray & Spens). He graduated in 1953 but did his national service with the Intelligence Corps when he defended a friend in a court martial in Paris.

He returned to Glasgow and, in 1958, founded Beltrami & Company in Buchanan Street initially as a one-partner firm but was joined by Willie Dunn and the two fast built a considerable clientele. He decided to concentrate on criminal law and was involved in several murder trials. One celebrated case was that of Walter Scott Ellis, who was charged with the murder of a taxi driver in Castlemilk in 1961. The trial attracted enormous publicity and the jury returned a unanimous not proven verdict – overnight Beltrami became the leading criminal lawyer in Scotland.

In 1969 he hit the legal headlines again when he defended the safe-cracker Patrick Meehan for a murder in Ayr. In a lengthy case Beltrami and Fairbairn argued that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice. The television commentator, Ludovic Kennedy, campaigned to have Meehan’s conviction overturned and Beltrami allowed Kennedy to see letters he had received from Meehan while in Barlinnie.

Another of Beltrami’s clients, William “Tank” McGuinness, had told him that he was the killer. Bound by client confidentiality Beltrami could not pass on that evidence until after McGuinness’s death in 1976. (“I was in a terrible position. Caused me sleepless nights,” he recalled). Meehan was freed and given a royal pardon.

Beltrami also secured a royal pardon for Maurice Swanson, who had been convicted of assault and robbery in 1974.

His most notorious client was the self-styled Glasgow gangster Arthur Thompson, whom he represented for 40 years. They maintained a very formal relationship. Beltrami once said: “Mr Thompson was a perfect gentleman, always immaculately dressed with perfectly polished shoes and impeccable manners.”

Not all of his cases were violent murders. In 1980 Beltrami defended Andy Robin, the owner of Hercules the bear, who had gone missing. Robin was prosecuted for not keeping a wild animal under control. With much guile Beltrami got the case dropped as Hercules was a working animal and thus exempt from the relevant act.

Beltrami told the procurator fiscal: “I wanted an identity parade because I wasn’t convinced the bear they had found was Hercules.”

In 1993, Beltrami became the first Solicitor-Advocate to plead in the Court of Criminal Appeal. He published several books connected with the law and chaired the testimonial committees for numerous football players.

Beltrami, a quietly spoken, studious and courteous man, was a keen sportsman, a supporter of Celtic and a fan of snooker, boxing and bowls.

He was a devout Catholic and a regular attender of St Bride’s Church in Lanarkshire. Beltrami married Delia in 1959. She and their three sons survive him.