Sir Robert Megarry
Long-lived judge of profound learning and epigrammatic wit
Thursday 26 October 2006
Robert Edgar Megarry, judge: born Croydon, Surrey 1 June 1910; solicitor 1935-41; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1944, Bencher 1962, Treasurer 1981; QC 1956; Kt 1967; Judge of the Chancery Division, High Court of Justice 1967-76, Vice-Chancellor 1976-81; Judge of the Supreme Court 1982-85; FBA 1970; PC 1978; married 1936 Iris Davies (died 2001; three daughters); died London 11 October 2006.
Robert Megarry, former Vice-Chancellor of the Chancery Division, was widely regarded as the most learned and hard-working judge of his time. It was a measure of his dedication to the law that he was still working at the age of 95: his last book, A New Miscellany-at-Law, was published last December.
Born in 1910, after Lancing College he taught for a term at a minor prep school in Buckinghamshire, Aston Clinton Park, immortalised by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall. There Megarry discovered his gift for teaching. He introduced the novel practice of inviting the boys to write an end-of-term report on him and his teaching, and used to quote from these reports for fun.
His legal career started tentatively with a third class degree in Law from Cambridge where he did minimal work, finding the course so dry and dull. Instead he enjoyed wider pursuits. He played football and tennis for his college, Trinity Hall. He clocked up the necessary flying hours to get his pilot's licence. He developed a wide and deep knowledge of music, teaching himself to read a full score while listening. On becoming Varsity's first music critic, in 1930, he wrote under a nom de plume to conceal from his tutor the time he devoted to this pursuit.
His love of the law developed only gradually. First he qualified as a solicitor and taught law at Cambridge. On the outbreak of the Second World War he was rejected for military service for medical reasons, and spent his war at the Ministry of Supply. After the war he developed refresher courses at the law tutors Gibson and Weldon for those returning to legal practice, and became an expert in the new field of Town and Country Planning.
Arthur Goodhart, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University, who became a good friend, persuaded Megarry to try for the Bar. Although Megarry declined Goodhart's offer of financial support while he developed his practice, this encouragement was crucial. Megarry's success as a barrister fully justified Goodhart's confidence.
Megarry was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1944. From then on, his energy and talent enabled him to pursue three careers in parallel, achieving eminence as author, teacher and practitioner. He authored or co-authored many textbooks that were leaders in their fields - The Law of Real Property (1957, with Professor H.W.R. Wade), A Manual of the Law of Real Property (1946), The Rent Acts (1939) and Snell's Equity (which he edited between the 23rd edition, in 1947, until the 27th edition in 1973 - from the 24th edition with Judge P.V. Baker).
These were groundbreaking works, setting out technical areas of the law in a clearly ordered and systematic way which students and practitioners found invaluable. Megarry sustained them all with new editions over the next 40 years. They earned him not only an LLD from Cambridge but also Fellowship of the British Academy. Megarry was book review editor and assistant editor of the Law Quarterly Review for 23 years. He also wrote a number of light-hearted books, notably A Miscellany at Law (1955, and its two follow-ups, 1973 and 2005).
Megarry's teaching career took him abroad, sometimes for months at a time, and he was a visiting professor at New York University and Osgoode Hall, Toronto. He lectured to generations of Bar students at the Council of Legal Education, continuing even after he became a judge and he became the President of the Society of Public Teachers of Law.
He practised the law with distinction and success, taking silk in 1956 after only 12 years of junior practice. In 1967 he was appointed to the Chancery Bench. He became the Vice-Chancellor of the Chancery Division on the creation of that post in 1983. After his retirement from the Bench in 1985, he was regularly invited to sit in the Privy Council, there displaying the abilities which would (and some believe should) have made him a natural candidate for the House of Lords.
Despite this extensive array of activities he still found time to be consultant to the BBC for their Law in Action series, to be a member of the Law Reform Committee and to chair other committees, such as the Notting Hill Housing Trust, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting and the Lincoln's Inn Wine Committee.
His judgments display his talents as writer and scholar. They still raise a smile at their epigrammatic wit and apt turns of phrase. He relished the opportunity to examine difficult or unexplored areas of the law even if these were not always crucial to the decision in the case. These learned excursions are still regarded as invaluable by practitioners, and by the bench, when there is nowhere else to turn for guidance.
Megarry was a master of after- dinner speaking - his collection of incomprehensible statutory provisions was legendary and he was frequently invited to speak abroad at common law gatherings. He was always keen to find a way of showing that the law was neither dry or dull. In a moot before students in Lincoln's Inn, his opponent quoted from one of Megarry's own books. Megarry promptly objected that a living author is not a quotable authority in court, whereupon his opponent "shot" him with a toy gun, causing a well-rehearsed collapse. His opponent gleefully pointed out that the "deceased" judge was now a quotable authority.
"Ted" Megarry inspired a love of the law in his students, and was keen to instil a thoughtful approach to practice. He used to ask students the question "Who is the most important person in court?" To the usual responses - the judge, the senior QC, and so on - he would assert instead that the most important person is the losing litigant. It was vital both that the litigant should know exactly why he had lost, and that the judge should be sensitive to the emotional impact of his decision.
Megarry was a natural teacher of the law in person, in his books and in his judgments. A man of integrity and good-humour, he had a strong sense of justice for the individual.
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