Obituary: Lord Maxwell

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The Independent Online
Peter Maxwell, lawyer: born Dumfriesshire 21 May 1919; called to the Scottish Bar 1951; QC (Scotland) 1961; Sheriff-Principal of Dumfries and Galloway 1970-73; Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland 1973-88; Chairman, Scottish Law Commission 1981- 88; married 1941 Alison Readman (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Edinburgh 2 January 1994.

PETER MAXWELL was an outstanding figure in the field of Scots law.

From an old-established landowning family in the south-west of Scotland, he was educated at Wellington College and servedin the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War. He went on to Balliol College, Oxford, and afterwards decided to pursue a career in law north of the Border. He was called to the Bar while in his early thirties, and quickly built up a substantial practice.

Maxwell's expertise lay in pleading in civil cases and he also carried on a very large advisory practice. His success continued unbroken after he took silk, and it was inevitable that judicial preferment would come his way. As Lord Maxwell he was a very popular judge and it was only the onset of deafness which prevented his promotion to even higher office. Instead he became chairman of the Scottish Law Commission, where his wide knowledge of the law and his thorough and common-sense approach to practical problems earned him high respect among those with whom he came into contact.

It is said that the complexions of judges fall into one of two categories - either of claret or of parchment. Peter Maxwell was unmistakably in the former category. He had an enormous sense of fun and an ability to see the absurd, both of which characteristics stood him in good stead in the world in which he worked. His resonant voice and manner of speech could be irresistibly amusing, and on the rare occasions when he could be persuaded to make a speech at a convivial gathering his audience would soon be reduced to helpless laughter.

But these aspects of his character disguised a formidable intellect. His approach to work, whether as counsel or as a judge, was serious and professional and no one could safely be taken in by the self-deprecatory mode of speech which he unconsciously cultivated. As counsel one knew that an intervention from the bench prefaced by the words: 'I may be awfully stupid, but . . .' would be the forerunner of a deadly question going right to the heart of the case. He was an ideal judge to appear before; his patience and courtesy became legendary, and he managed almost invariably to conceal his dislike of humbug or pomposity. His judgements were reliable and were almost always the last word on the case.

His departure from the bench to the Law Commission was universally regretted. Peter Maxwell was devoted to his wife and family; his other passion in life, which to him was an addiction, was fly fishing.

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