Horace Rumpole, his courtroom wig perched askew on his head and his barrister's gown dotted with cigar ashes, is back for the defense to represent such clients as a vicar accused of shoplifting, an actress on trial for the murder of her husband and a Facist candidate for Parliament.

For the next six weeks, "Rumpole of the Bailey II" will be running on the public broadcasting "Mystery!" series at 9 o'clock on Tuesday evenings, starting tonight. Those who missed Rumpole's debut last year have a second chance to discover the delightfully quirky, irascible British barrister.

Actor Leo McKern has created an original with his Rumpole. His barrister, a squat figure with ample and expressive jowls, wears rumpled clothes, quotes Shakespeare and the poets on any occasion, swills pub claret (Chateau Fleet Street), leaves a trail of ashes from his small cheroots and complains equally about judges and his wife (She Who Must Be Obeyed). Like so may eccentrics, Rumpole takes care to nurture his idiosyncracies so they won't go unnoticed.

For Rumpole, the courtroom is a stage and the jury is the audience for his performance as defense attorney. He is a shameless ham as he feigns indignation, pleads for justice in orotund phrases, spars with judges, punctures the prosecution's arguments with sharp sallies of wit, and plays on emotions. Rumpole never pleads a client guilty -- it's against his religion.

For tonight's opener, Rumpole finds himself called upon to defend the Rev. Mordred Skinner, a clergyman collared for shoplifting three sport shirts.

The Rev. Skinner is a curiously uncooperative client for Rumpole. At the time, the vicar says, he was shopping with his sister and preoccupied with the Problem of Evil -- why did a good and all-wise God put evil into the world?

"So that an ordinary fellow like me can get plenty of briefs around the Old Bailey and London Sessions," Rumpole observes, willing for a spot of theology to win his client's confidence.

Along with Rumpole, an engaging assortment of characters returns for the second-season series -- the starchy, stuffy Erskine-Brown, Rumpole's nicely proper George Frobisher, Rumpole's colleagues in chambers; Miss Trant, the young woman lawyer, and Hilda, Rumpole's wife, who has survived her husband's outrageous whims with a sturdy disposition of her own.

In addition to defending the vicar, Rumpole rises to the defense of bachelorhood when he learns that Frobisher, his pub companion, is thinking of marrying Mrs. Ida Tempest. Marriage, he reminds his friend, is "like pleading guilty for an indefinite sentence without hope of parole." There is a delicious scene in which Hilda and Mrs. Tempest take each other's measure when Frobisher brings his fiancee to the Rumpoles for dinner. o

It is on one of Rumpole's irksome weekly shopping trips with Hilda that he stumbles on the truth in the case of the reluctant cleric-client. "But you were prepared to lie to me," he confronts the vicar.

The Rev. Mr. Skinner, suddenly no longer the adsent-minded cleric silences Rumpole for one of the few times in the barrister's life: "Mr. Rumpole, I have the greatest respect for your skill as an advocte, but I have never been in danger of mistaking you for Almighty God."

"Rumpole of the Bailey II," will be seen on Channel 26, with six one-hour episodes running at 9 p.m. Tuesdays through March 24.