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Obituary: Sir Wilfrid Bourne

FROM HIS childhood, it was clear that Wilfrid Bourne had a remarkably powerful intellect. While only 10 or 11, he would exchange Greek iambics with his elder brother during their pillow fights, and he never lost his gift for pointed quotation from the Classics. But it is as a pillar of the Lord Chancellor's Department from 1956 to 1982 that he will be remembered.

The second son of Robert Bourne, MP for Oxford City, and Lady Hester Bourne, eldest daughter of the fourth Earl Cairns and granddaughter of Lord Chancellor Cairns, he went, like his father and grandfather before him, to Eton, entering as a King's Scholar and becoming Newcastle Scholar and, in 1940, Captain of the School. He obtained the Ella Stephens Greek Scholarship to New College, Oxford, and took a First in Mods in 1941 before joining up.

Commissioned in the Rifle Brigade, he served as signal officer with the 1st Battalion from November 1942 to May 1945, in North Africa, Italy, Normandy and north-west Europe. He never spoke of his wartime experiences; but he was one of those who saw with his own eyes the full horror of Belsen.

Demobilised in December 1945, he returned to Oxford to read Jurisprudence, in which he obtained another First. Having joined the Middle Temple, he became in 1947 a pupil of J.F. Morran in the top flight common-law chambers of Melford Stevenson KC (later a well-known High Court Judge). He was called to the Bar in 1948, obtaining the Harmsworth and Eldon scholarships; was offered a seat in Stevenson's chambers, and joined the Oxford circuit.

But his choice of common-law chambers did not work out as well as might have been expected; and Melford Stevenson later remarked that sending Wilfrid Bourne to do a case in the county court was like using a razor to cut linoleum. With his gifts, Bourne might have succeeded brilliantly at the Chancery Bar; but he lacked enthusiasm for the rough-and-tumble of the lower reaches of common-law practice, and failed to attract work from solicitors who, in that milieu, were probably looking for other qualities. So in 1956, after eight years in chambers (and at a time when the Bar as a whole was in a somewhat depressed state), he entered the Lord Chancellor's Office at the age of 34 as one of the small group of lawyers working close to the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords, where he soon became Private Secretary to the Earl of Kilmuir.

Bourne took like a duck to water to advising on the often complex and difficult legal, constitutional and parliamentary matters with which he had to deal; and his advice was much in demand at all levels. He served for many years as secretary to the Law Reform Committee, where his speed and clarity of thought, deep knowledge of the law, and sound grasp of practicalities contributed much to reports such as the review of the law of evidence in civil cases, on which the Civil Evidence Act 1968 was based.

It was characteristic of him that, not long after the establishment of the Law Commission in 1965, he took it upon himself to write for the lawyers there, whose duties included providing their attached Parliamentary Counsel with drafting instructions, a guide to how this should be done - he himself having had to learn it the hard way.

Bourne's minutes and letters were clear, crisp and entwined with classical and modern literary allusions. It was a disappointment to him to find that almost nobody in the Lord Chancellor's Office was able to swap Greek quotations with him until the arrival of Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone - when the ability of the Lord Chancellor and his Permanent Secretary to exchange minutes in Greek was not always appreciated by their juniors. Sherlock Holmes, too, was a great source of Wilfridisms.

In 1977 he was appointed to the paired offices of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. This involved him in a good deal of administration, and brought him into contact with the Bar and the judiciary in his capacity as adviser on judicial and other appointments. He took a lot of trouble over this, but was never a popular figure with that constituency, perhaps because he was a shy man and no extrovert. Yet beneath his shyness Wilfrid Bourne was a very kind and generous person, taking great pleasure in his family and in teaching his grandchildren Pelmanism and racing demon.

John Wilfrid Bourne, barrister: born 27 January 1922; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948; staff, Lord Chancellor's Office 1956-82, Principal Assistant Solicitor 1970-72, Deputy Secretary 1972-77, Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and Permanent Secretary 1977-82; CB 1975, KCB 1979; QC 1981; married 1958 Elizabeth Fox (two sons); died 19 October 1999.