Obituary: Lord Edmund-Davies

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Herbert Edmund Davies (Herbert Edmund Edmund-Davies), lawyer, born 15 July 1906, called to the Bar Gray's Inn 1929, QC 1943, Bencher 1948, Judge of High Court of Queen's Bench Division 1958-66, Kt 1958, PC 1966, a Lord Justice of Appeal 1966-74, created 1974 Baron Edmund-Davies, married 1935 Eurwen Williams-James (three daughters), died 26 December 1992.

EDMUND DAVIES was one of the best-known judges of the Sixties and Seventies. His judicial career, successively in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords over more than 20 years was only part of a long life of public service of many kinds. His career gave the lie to the myth, much propagated today in some quarters, that such a career is only possible for those of an upper middle-class background followed by a public school and Oxbridge education.

Edmund Davies's education was largely financed by scholarships. His advantages lay only in a strong Welsh Nonconformist family background coupled with remarkable intellectual ability, great industry and a wholly legitimate ambition.

He was born Herbert Edmund Davies, the third son of his parents. Throughout his career, until his appointment as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1974, he was known as Edmund Davies. This distinguished him from his contemporary and friend Arthian Davies. When required to take a title he added another 'Edmund' to his surname, thus acquiring the hyphenated surname by which he was known for the remainder of his life.

His parents sent him to Mountain Ash Grammar School. He then went to King's College, London, where his great abilities were soon recognised. He successively acquired an LLB with first class honours, a postgraduate research scholarship and an LLD. He then read for a BCL at Exeter College, Oxford. There he became a pupil of Geoffrey Cheshire, the law fellow and bursar of Exeter, author of a number of well-known books and the father of Leonard Cheshire. This led to a long connection with the future Lord Cheshire and the Cheshire Homes. Davies won first class honours with his BCL and also the Vinerian scholarship. Cheshire always regarded him as his star pupil and strongly encouraged him to go to the Bar rather than pursue an academic career for which he could hardly have been better qualified.

He was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1929 after gaining more first class honours, this time first of the first class in his Bar final examinations. For a short while he kept a foot in the academic world by lecturing and examining at the London School of Economics. But at the Bar in London in the Thirties work of all kinds was extremely scarce. Davies therefore wisely took the decision to join the Welsh circuit and to practise in Swansea. For the remainder of his time at the Bar he remained largely a circuit practitioner, with a big junior practice in Swansea before the war and with a formidable reputation as a leader after the war, especially as counsel for the defence in criminal cases.

But as with others of his generation Davies's career was interrupted by the war. Though already married, and with a family he had joined the Army Officers Emergency Reserve at the time of Munich and shortly after the outbreak of war was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers with whom he remained until sent to the Judge Advocate Generals Department. There he continued to work until the end of the war. He was however able to keep in touch with his circuit through his successive tenure during the latter war years of the recorderships of Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea. In 1943, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, granted silk to some of those who but for their war service would by then have been ready to receive it. Davies was among that number. At the end of the war he thus returned to the bar as a leader and his reputation grew rapidly in Wales. His successful conduct of the defence in the once notorious 'weedkiller' murder trial in 1952 achieved considerable fame and he won other trials. In the same year he was appointed Recorder of Cardiff, the main recordership on his circuit.

It came as no surprise to the profession when in 1958 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir appointed him to the High Court bench. Davies's name almost immediately attracted wider public attention when it fell to him to try a German named Podola. Podola had shot and killed a police sergeant. He was later hanged. But still wider fame awaited him. In 1964 he was sent to Aylesbury to try the notorious Great Train Robbery case. The severity of the sentences he passed became and has remained controversial. He and later the Court of Criminal Appeal had no doubt that the sentences were well justified not only as retribution and as a deterrent but also to ensure that the huge gains won by violence should not be enjoyed by those who had perpetrated such violence, especially the brutal attack upon the driver of the train.

Those sentences reflected much of Davies's thinking. Though always interested in penal reform - shortly after that trial he became a member of the Royal Commission on Penal Reform - he never wavered in his view that, however right it might be to seek to reform criminals, serious crime must be met with severe punishment.

In 1966 the former Court of Criminal Appeal was replaced by the new Court of Appeal Criminal Division. This necessitated the apppointment of additional Lord Justices. It was no surprise that with the reputation already gained as a trial judge especially in criminal cases, Davies was among the new appointments. It was hoped that he could shoulder some of the burden then being carried by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Parker. But hardly had his appointment been announced when the Aberfan disaster took place. An inquiry was immediately demanded. Davies was chosen as chairman. A Welshman was to enquire into a Welsh disaster. His strong emotions - for behind his apparent self-control he was an emotional man - sometimes spilled over both during the lengthy hearing and in the wording of his report. His condemnation of the National Coal Board was complete and unqualified.

Davies returned to his judicial work very tired but soon took his share of the ever-increasing workload civil and criminal which membership of that court has always involved. He was at his best when presiding in the criminal division. Notwithstanding his intellectual gifts he seemed to find the range of civil work and the need for successive ex tempore judgements more difficult than his many friends had expected. He would often labour over a lunchtime sandwich in his room to prepare for a judgement to be given that afternoon or late at night over a judgement to be delivered next morning.

His appointment to the House of Lords in 1974 came as a great relief. But soon after he was again pressed to leave judicial work in order to chair the Police Inquiry which was especially concerned with the problems of police pay. The report is always associated with his name and is still often referred to in present controversies on similar topics. His recommendations for pay rises were accepted not without reluctance by the government and the Treasury. Through much of this period he was a member of the Criminal Law Revision Committee, many of whose proposed reforms were adopted.

By 1981, when he was 75, Edmund-Davies felt he had had enough. He was one of the last of the 'freeholders' and was thus under no obligation to retire. But he foresaw that with the retirement of Lord Wilberforce looming in 1982 he would become one of the two senior Law Lords and obliged to shoulder the additional burden of presiding in the Appellate Committee. This extra burden he was reluctant to undertake. He retired, thereafter sitting occasionally in the Lords and the Privy Council but devoting more time to his many other interests.

His family, his wife, his daughters and their children came first in his devotion. But Wales and everything Welsh were also a source of devotion. For 11 years he was pro-Chancellor of the University of Wales. In addition he was a Life Governor and Fellow of King's College, London, and an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He was treasurer of Gray's Inn in 1965. To all these institutions he always acknowledged his debt. Until his health failed he continued to live in Gray's Inn but ultimately moved to a home near the care of one of his daughters and her husband. His former colleagues will remember him with affection for his many gifts not least his gift of friendship.

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