Glasgow’s renowned criminal defence lawyer remembered for his ‘integrity and passion’
Nicknamed “Big Joe”, he appeared in more than 350 murder trials during a career spanning 50 years.
Photo: James Williamson
Joe Beltrami was well known to all who practised law in Glasgow
He famously represented the gangland “godfather” Arthur Thompson Snr, whose acquittal on various charges in the 1980s led to Glaswegians in trouble coining the popular phrase, “Get me Beltrami”.
He is understood to have saved 12 clients from the hangman’s noose and was behind the first Royal Pardon to be granted in Scotland when Maurice Swanson had his conviction for bank robbery quashed in 1975.
One year later, he helped secure a Royal Pardon for Patrick Meehan, a safe blower who was the victim of a miscarriage of justice when he was wrongly convicted of the 1969 murder of Rachel Ross at her home in Ayr.
Meehan’s instructing solicitor at the original trial was Mr Beltrami and his advocates were Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who became a Tory MP, and John Smith, who became leader of the Labour Party.
Other notable clients included the Glasgow safecracker Johnny Ramensky, and Walter Scott Ellis, who was accused of murdering a Glasgow taxi driver in 1961.
Mr Beltrami also helped launch the careers of several QCs, including Donald Findlay, the leading defence lawyer.
Thomas Ross, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said: “Perhaps the first lawyer in Scotland to specialise in criminal law, he laid the path for all of us to follow.
“No counsel instructed by him failed to learn from his guidance. Known fondly as Big Joe, he will never be forgotten.”
The Glasgow Bar Association said Mr Beltrami, who retired in 2008, was well known to all who practiced in the city and would be mourned by his many colleagues.
When he was recognised with a lifetime achievement award at the Law Awards of Scotland in 2008, he said he had appeared in every court in Scotland, from Shetland to Duns.
He was also made an honorary life member of the Law Society of Scotland, the highest honour the society can bestow on a Scottish solicitor.
His death was announced in a statement from the firm he founded, Beltrami & Co, which said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our founder, the legendary Mr Joseph Beltrami. Sincere condolences to his family.”
Aamer Anwar, the Glasgow lawyer, said Mr Beltrami was “probably the last of the legends in Scots Law”, adding: “Over half a century of work and 300 murder cases, Joe Beltrami became the name to aspire to for young criminal lawyers, long before social media and advertising ever took a hold. Big Joe was respected and feared by the good and the bad as a lawyer full of integrity and passion.”
In an interview in 2009, Mr Beltrami praised Scotland’s controversial third verdict, describing “not proven” as a great verdict. “There are regular campaigns to get rid of it, but I think it’s a perfectly valid verdict,” he added.
He also observed that safe blowing appeared to be disappearing from the criminal calendar, adding: “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.”
The son of a Swiss-Italian father, who owned a fish restaurant in Glasgow Cross, and a Scottish mother, Mr Beltrami was brought up in Glasgow and educated at St. Aloysius’ College and the University of Glasgow.
He spent two years on National Service in the mid-1950s, spending part of the time as a translator in Paris, before qualifying as a solicitor in 1956.
Mr Beltrami, who lived in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, leaves three sons and eight grandchildren.