Beltrami 12, Hangman 0

FOR someone who has always prided himself on knowing the answer to the next question before it is asked, Joe Beltrami insists he was taken by surprise by the Law Society of Scotland's recent decision to award him Honorary Life Membership in recognition of his half-century of work as a criminal defence solicitor.

Receiving the award was, he says, "very emotional", adding: "There was a great turnout at the presentation, including the Lord Advocate. And a great ovation from everyone too."

There is a pause before his sting in the tail: "Mind you, I haven't always had a standing ovation from Lord Advocates."

A scan over his past clients gives a clue to the occasional moment of friction with the Crown Office. He secured two Royal Pardons for clients wrongly convicted, and defended successfully in 12 capital murder cases. Beltrami 12, Hangman 0.

"They were a mixture of not guilty, culpable homicides and not-provens," he says, adding with feeling: "Not-proven is a great verdict. There are regular campaigns to get rid of it, but I think it's a perfectly valid verdict. The prosecution did not prove its case. Look at the number of people in England over the years who have had to be paid great amounts of compensation for wrongful convictions. If the not-proven verdict had been available to their jury, I doubt if many would have been convicted."

Mr Beltrami didn't come from a legal background – his father owned a fish restaurant in Glasgow Cross – and he studied law part-time at Glasgow University, graduating in 1953. But it was his two years of National Service between 1954 and 1956 that allowed him to see a world furth of Glasgow and convinced him he wanted to return to practise law.

So in 1958 Joe went into the criminal defence business on his own account. Back then, Glasgow's legal landscape was very different: "You could count the full-time criminal defence firms on two hands," he says. "The best known was Laurence Dowdall. I envied his style and his ability."

The relationship with the prosecution was also different: "Of course there was no DNA profiling then or much of the rest of the forensic evidence you see in even minor cases today," he says. "It was the devil's own work getting evidence out of the prosecution compared to today's compulsory disclosure. My approach was always to get preparation for a case right. I wanted to know we had a response to anything the prosecution might throw up."

Crime seemed different too. Without being too wistful, he recalls one of his regular clients, safe-blower Johnny Ramensky: "Safe-blowing has disappeared from the criminal calendar these last 20 years," he says. "There was a real skill to it and I heard criminals would come up from London to recruit safe-blowers in Glasgow because they were recognised practitioners of the art."

Ramensky became something of a folk hero, though his skills at opening safes were seldom matched by his ability to get away from the scene of a crime. He spent almost all his adult years in jail.

Another safe-cracker, Paddy Meehan was to become the central figure in possibly the greatest cause celebr when convicted of the murder of Rachel Ross In 1969. It was a crime he did not commit.

Beltrami's dilemma was that one of his other clients, William "Tank" McGuiness, indicated to him he had been involved in the murder and Meehan had nothing to do with it. But the admission had been made within the restrictions of client confidence.

"I got in touch with the Law Society and in general terms outlined the issue and my problem and asked them for their advice in principle about my position," recalls. Mr Beltrami. "I am still waiting for a reply!"

When McGuiness himself was murdered, Mr Beltrami was able to make his information known to the authorities but it took until 1976 for Meehan's conviction to be overturned and for him to be awarded a Royal Pardon.

It was Beltrami's second such pardon secured for a client – a unique distinction. In 1974, his client, Maurice Swanson, was convicted of assault and robbery, but after a short period inside it became clear there had been a miscarriage of justice. Swanson was pardoned on 23 July, 1975.

It would be misleading to suggest Joe Beltrami is given to sentiment about his clients and their cases from the vantage point of retirement, but he cannot hide a sense that maybe the lot of the criminal justice lawyer is less exciting than it was.

There are, maybe, fewer legal nooks and crannies to search for a statable defence, but he is scathing about the continuing erosion of the independence of the courtroom from political interference: "In my opinion the judiciary should be independent of the executive," he says.

"Politicians have been allowed get away with passing laws telling judges precisely what sentence they have to hand down for a whole range of offences. Judges should be insulted that they are being told by the executive what they have to decide and how to run their trial.

"They should look to the Lord President to speak up for the judiciary and remind politicians that they should stay on their side of the line, but it hasn't happened."