Horace Rumpole (played by the late Leo McKern) is an untidy, ageing London barrister who defends in criminal cases. His clients rarely cut elegant figures. He is fond of red wine, poetry, and fair dealing, and is not looked on as a great success by his wife ('She Who Must Be Obeyed'). Rumpole has had a few triumphs, and the Penge Bungalow murders are often on his mind... Rumpole shares Chambers at Number 3, Equity Court, with a mixed group of barrister colleagues, including Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles) and Phyllida Trant (Patricia Hodge). He also takes pupils - notably Fiona Allways (played by Rosalyn Landor) and Liz Probert. The creator and writer of the series, Sir John Mortimer, received an Edgar Allan Poe Award for crime and mystery for Rumpole.
Rumpole defends a vicar who is charged with stealing three shirts from a department store, but the troubled clergyman refuses to take the stand in his own defense. George Frobisher, who is in line to be appointed as a Circuit Judge, comes to dinner with the Rumpoles and introduces his new girlfriend. Rumpole remembers seeing her in court and advises his friend to think again.
With the Christmas season in full swing, Rumpole defends Dave Anstey on the charge of stabbing a sales assistant in an off-license. It seems to be a case of mistaken identity, but why does Dave's boss, on whom his alibi depends, change his story and undermine the defense? Meanwhile, Rumpole's Head of Chambers has an attractive new secretary, and starts spending a lot of time with her behind closed doors... When Guthrie Featherstone is seen gyrating at a disco with the girl from the typing pool, Rumpole means to get to the bottom of it all.
Rumpole travels to the north of England and practices his own theatricality in defense of Maggie Hartley, an actress accused of shooting her womanizing husband.
Rumpole defends Captain Rex Parkin, who is charged with inciting a riot by racist speeches. Rumpole also has a new pupil, one Latif Khan.
Rumpole defends a flamboyanty romantic young schoolteacher who is accused of seducing a pupil. Meanwhile, Rumpole's colleague in chambers Guthrie Featherstone pursues his ambition of becoming a High Court judge, while Phyllida has a secret to keep from a former lover.
Rumpole defends Percy Timson, a receiver of stolen property who has been framed for the theft of an important painting which is out of his league. Meanwhile, Rumpole's wife and son Nick (who is now a college lecturer in the US) are making plans for Rumpole's retirement in the very near future - to a restful existence in Maryland.