Obituary: Lord Devlin

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The Independent Online
PATRICK DEVLIN's career is not one of those that can be measured by offices held, steps up a ladder to increasing fame and distinction, writes Nicolas Barker (further to the obituary by James Morton, 11 August). It was the variety of his abilities and achievements, his refusal to accept the path of conformism, that made him not only a great man in his own time, but one for all time.

Some of his non-conformism was inherited. His father, William Devlin, came of an Ulster Catholic family (what sort of cousin, he used to wonder at the height of her fame, was Bernadette Devlin?). His mother was a member of one of the great merchant families of Aberdeen. It was an improbable but entirely successful marriage, in the teeth of all sorts of opposition, social as well as religious. William chose to live among his wife's people in his practice as an architect. He was not very successful, although some pleasant buildings that he designed testify to his originality; his drawing for the Catholic Church at Willesden (never built) is even more striking evidence of it.

If to be brought up a Catholic in Aberdeen had its strains, they did not affect the young Patrick, who grew up cheerfully among a horde of Crombie cousins and their friends. Stonyhurst was less happy; he got through it, but discovered his distaste for unthinking acceptance, increasingly of dogma as well as of rules and regulations. Cambridge, on the other hand, he thoroughly enjoyed, particularly the Union. As President, he took the Union on a long tour in the US, discovering a new world, many new friends, and new abilities in himself; he did not get a very good degree, but that had ceased to matter.

He was very fortunate to be picked up by Jowitt so soon. It was much more than a professional relationship, and when Patrick Devlin married Madeleine Oppenheimer they spent their honeymoon in a house lent by the Jowitts. By now Devlin was already famous. The Annie Hearn case in 1931 came at the height of fashion for murder trials (as for detective fiction). It was widely reported in the press, to whom Patrick, with his flaming red hair, was an immediately picturesque figure, and he became even more so when, with his leader taken ill, he nearly had to make the closing speech for the prosecution. If he had, might he not have won? He was quite convinced of Hearn's guilt, and alarmed later to hear that she had taken to keeping a guesthouse.

Devlin took to the whole business of judging with enthusiasm and delight. Always a firm believer in the jury system, he soon found an easy rapport with the juries in his cases. His ability to set out dense and technical legal argument in simple terms that could be quite easily understood was increasingly known and respected outside the legal profession.

First he took on the presidency of the Restrictive Practices Court. Other judges were concerned lest judicial impartiality would be impaired by possible involvement in political issues, but Devlin was confident that it would not, and events proved him right. Then came the Docks and Nyasaland, and he became a public figure in his own right, apart from the legal profession in which he had made his name.

All this, as well as the sense of being increasingly hemmed in, cramped in expressing what he felt to be the essence of judicial behaviour, led to his decision to resign in 1964. This was not a selfish decision: he was more tolerant of bores and being bored than most men - it was the inefficient use of time to which he objected. Self-expression, too, had become a duty as well as a pleasure. During his years as a judge he had found time that he had lacked as a barrister to think and write. Trial by Jury (1956), The Enforcement of Morals (1965) and his collected essays, The Judge (1979) show the delight he took in writing, as well as truths about the nature of law, justice and morality that will remain timeless.

To me, the most remarkable of all his books was Too Proud to Fight, which I saw through the press. At a basic level, it was an object lesson in how to collect and absorb a large amount of diverse material, resolve its discrepancies and set it out in clear, compelling words - the business of authorship. It was as fascinating to see why this man and those issues had come to interest him. Woodrow Wilson's career was still fresh news on his first visit to the US, and it had held him ever since. It was not just the interaction of Wilson's idealism with the squalid practicality of Tammany Hall and Dean Church, but the conflict of two different kinds of selfishness that engaged him, as well as the intricacies of Wilson's relationship with Col House. He had planned a second volume, but other business prevented it. This is a great pity, because it would have led him on to Versailles and its impact on international politics, which increasingly interested him.

When Devlin resigned in 1964, the International Labour Organisation gave him the welcome opportunity of continuing practical work as a judge. It was the internationality of this work that particularly engaged him, the need to balance rights held under different legal systems. He enjoyed his regular visits to Geneva, extended when the rule of the colonels threatened the organisation of labour in Greece. He was much valued, and affectionately admired, by the ILO staff. Indeed, he was an enjoying as well as enjoyable guest wherever he went.

The importance of his large and ever-extending family has been rightly stressed. The support of his wife, over nearly 60 years of marriage, was of unique importance to him. Without Madeleine, he could not have done all the things he did, least of all enjoy himself so much. People who enjoy themselves are always thought to be selfish, but he believed that enjoyment, giving as well as taking, was as important and necessary a part of human life as freedom and justice. In the great debate with Herbert Hart as to whether law and morality were separable or inseparable, Devlin could see no real point at issue. All that mattered was that humanity should be given the best means of fulfilling itself. Enjoyment was not a frivolous business: he enjoyed good wine, but took it seriously, calling in Avery's regularly to make sure that his cellar was properly maintained.

Increasing the enjoyment of life was, perhaps, Devlin's greatest gift to his own time. Whether in the restriction of violent crime or establishing freedom, freedom of the press, freedom to work in appropriate conditions, his work was of far-reaching proportions. His writings will continue to make people think both about rights and duties. The enjoyment of both was the cause to which Devlin's life was devoted.