Obituary: Lord Roskill

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The Independent Online
Eustace Roskill was equipped with a formidable intellect, an astonishing memory and a great gift for inspiring affection and friendship. He could deliver accurately and persuasively a complicated judgment, orally and extempore. He could entertain with brilliant conversation and anecdotes delivered with charm and without malice.

He was born in 1911, the youngest of four sons. His brothers became respectively Chairman of the Monopolies Commission, a famous naval historian, and a distinguished industrial consultant. Eustace was an Exhibitioner at Winchester College and an Exhibitioner at Exeter College, Oxford, where he took First Class honours in Modern History. He was elected to a Harmsworth scholarship and called to the Bar by the Middle Temple. He was a pupil of Johnny Pritt and Henry Willinck and practised as a junior at the Commercial Bar.

To give a bare recital of his subsequent major achievements, he took silk in 1953, became Chairman of Hampshire Quarter Sessions in 1960, and was appointed a Judge of the High Court, Queen's Bench Division in 1962. In 1967 he became the first Vice-Chairman of the Parole Board, and the following year was appointed Chairman of the Third London Airport Commission which reported in 1970. In 1971 he was promoted to the Court of Appeal and in 1980 elevated to the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and sat on the Appellate Committee and in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council until his retirement in 1986. He was Chairman of the Fraud Trials Committee which reported in 1986. After his retirement he was Chairman of the Appeals Committee of the Take-over Panel between 1987 and 1993. Until shortly before his death he was much in demand as an arbitrator in commercial disputes at home and abroad.

This recital does not, however, do justice to Eustace Roskill's complex character and humanity. He was the son of a KC, a strict and much-loved father who inculcated in his children the virtues of hard work and public service and the principles of Christianity. Eustace was greatly attached to his mother and greatly shocked by her death in a fire at the family home. In the 1930s he suffered from tuberculosis; as a result he was unfit for active service and spent the war years in the Ministries of Shipping and War Transport, working with Sir William McNair on questions of international law to avoid the threat of vessels being impounded by hostile nations.

As a junior in commercial chambers before the war, work was hard to come by and money short, but after the war Roskill acquired a large commercial practice by hard work, attention to detail, speed and decisiveness. His clients appreciated his mastery of the law, his analyses of the facts, the application of principle and practical advice. He encouraged young brilliant entrants to the profession including John Donaldson, subsequently Master of the Rolls, and Michael Mustill, now a Lord of Appeal.

When he joined the Commercial Bar the range of work was largely limited to the traditional subjects of carriage by sea, insurance, banking transactions and the supervision of arbitrators. His initiative and energy at the Bar and subsequently on the Bench began the process (carried forward by his contemporaries and successors) of transforming the scale and variety of the Commercial Bar's work and the accessibility and speed of response of the Commercial Court.

Roskill extended his practice to crime and personal injuries in becoming Vice Chairman and later Chairman of Hampshire Quarter Sessions. When he took silk he argued a number of civil cases of great importance with skill and success. His promotion to the Bench in 1962 as a judge of the Queen's Bench Division was expected and welcomed.

As a judge, Roskill was appreciated for the qualities which had brought him success at the Bar. In court he was patient and courteous. He was respected for high principles and admired for his common sense. He was strict in the punishment of crimes of violence but understanding and compassionate toward those who did not constitute a menace to society.

Roskill organised the first of a series of sentencing conferences for magistrates, and is still remembered by the magistracy for his leadership and guidance and friendly advice which produced fairness and consistency in the administration of the criminal law. At the Parole Board and with his fellow judge Arthur James he was largely responsible for rules of practice and procedure which established the reputation of the Board for fairness and consistency.

Roskill's success as a judge led to his being presented with the poisoned chalice of chairmanship of the commission which was instructed to choose between possible sites for the Third London Airport. Its report is still studied in academic circles as a model example of cost benefit analysis. Roskill's conduct of the work was impeccable. With one dissentient the commission agreed on the best site, at Cublington in Bedfordshire. If the recommendation had been accepted a good deal of anguish for travellers would have been saved; it was however hotly opposed by local interests; Roskill was unfairly abused and carried that abuse with equanimity although it must have hurt. He stoically declined to answer back and allowed the report of the commission to speak for itself.

He later suffered bad publicity and abuse when a soldier convicted of rape was freed by a division of the Court of Appeal over which he presided. This was ironic, because Roskill was always strict in his approach to crimes of this nature; but the court took the view that much harm and no good would result from a prison sentence, that the pronouncement of the original sentence of three years was a sufficient deterrent and that the prisoner would become a useful member of society if he were released and thus enabled to be taken back into the Army.

In addition to his work at the Bar and on the Bench Roskill devoted much time and skill to help those institutions which had won his loyalty. He became a fellow of Winchester College, an honorary fellow of his college at Oxford and enjoyed meeting the dons and the young undergraduates with whom he was at ease.

When Lord Pearce's Committee recommended a reorganisation of the relationship between the Bar and the Inns of Court, Roskill consented to become the first President of the Senate of the Inns of Court and the Bar and it was largely due to his tact and energy that the reorganisation succeeded.

Throughout his career, Roskill took an active part in the affairs of the Middle Temple. Before, during and after becoming Treasurer of the Inn - at the same time as his brother Ashton was Treasurer of the Inner Temple - he was available to advise and encourage students and young barristers.

Accessibility was the keynote of Roskill's personality on and off the bench. He was often to be found between his flat in the Middle Temple and the Law Courts carrying on a wide- ranging and uninhibited conversation. The same lack of pomposity and grandeur marked his activities with the young as with their seniors. He set high standards for the Bar and could bear heavily on those who performed badly, but his solicitude for those he felt would benefit from support and encouragement helped launch many a successful career. When personal tragedy struck any friend, tactful help and sympathy were inevitably forthcoming from Roskill and his wife Elisabeth.

After his retirement Roskill was a popular choice as Chairman of the Take-over Appeal committee and as an arbitrator. His last and perhaps greatest contribution to the improvement of the administration of justice is to be found in the report of the Fraud Trials Committee which he chaired. The recommendations with regard to jury trial were not well received in some quarters but time has proved that, as Roskill with his vast experience believed, justice is not best served by imposing excessive burdens of time and complication on juries. The committee's recommendations with regard to other matters such as pre-trial conferences and pre-trial disclosure brought a breath of fresh air on to the scene and have been accepted and largely adopted.

In his last years Roskill fought bravely against ill-health, sustained as always by his family. He retained his interest in literature, music and art and attended a performance of a favourite opera not long before he died. No account of the career of Eustace Roskill would be complete without an acknowledgement of the debt he owed to his wife Elisabeth. They were together for nearly 50 years, they adored one another, they supplemented and complemented one another and Roskill would not have accomplished so much without her.

Eustace Wentworth Roskill, judge: born London 6 February 1911; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1933; QC 1953; Kt 1962; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division 1962-71; Chairman, Commission on Third London Airport 1968-70; PC 1971; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1971-80; created 1980 Baron Roskill; a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1980-86; married 1947 Elisabeth Jackson (one son, two daughters); died Reading, Berkshire 3 October 1996.