Obituary: Lord Devlin

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THE ADMIRABLE obituaries of Lord Devlin (by James Morton, 11 August, Patrick Cosgrave, 13 August, Nicolas Barker and Janet Adam Smith, 22 August, and Ross Kessel, 2 September) do not bring out an important fact concerning his career at the Bar and as a Judge: he was one of the leading commercial lawyers of his day, writes Richard Aikens.

He entered the chambers of Sir William Jowitt KC, who had been the Attorney General in Ramsay MacDonald's second administration and was himself a highly successful commercial Silk. (Lord Devlin said much later in life that he was given the waiting-room as his own, because solicitors never used it, preferring to stand about at the door of the great man's room.)

During the war years Devlin built up a large junior practice in commercial cases, principally dealing with shipping and insurance. This practice continued to expand after he was appointed KC in 1945.

He became a Judge of the King's Bench Division in October 1948, after only three and a half years in Silk, an astonishingly short time. During the next 11 years he sat often as judge in charge of the Commercial List, which had been created in 1894 to provide a specialist court to deal with disputes from the shipping, insurance and banking world. Lord Devlin's decisions in commercial cases frequently contain lucid expositions of the law which have withstood the test of time and the attacks of later advocates. Perhaps his most notable judgments in this field concern the duties of carriers of goods by sea under the international convention universally known as 'the Hague Rules'.

As an appellate Judge he had little time to develop a reputation in commercial cases such as his great predecessor Lord Justice Scrutton. In the House of Lords, two of Lord Devlin's most important judgments were, ironically, in other areas of the law: Rookes vs Barnard on the question of when a court was entitled to award exemplary damages; and the celebrated case of Hedley, Byrne & Co Ltd vs Heller, which established for the first time that a person may be sued for damages for making a negligent (as opposed to a fraudulent) statement. But this fact does not detract from Lord Devlin's enduring contribution to commercial law both as advocate and judge.