Obituary: Lord Morton of Shuna

Click to follow
Hugh Drennan Baird Morton, judge: born Sinminhsien, Manchuria 10 April 1930; admitted Faculty of Advocates 1965; QC 1974; created 1985 Baron Morton of Shuna; Senator of the College of Justice 1988-95; married 1956 Muriel Miller (three sons); died Edinburgh 26 April 1995.

On 29 January this year Hugh Morton welcomed his erstwhile Lords front- bench colleague Nora David on a visit to Edinburgh, with his wife Muriel entertained her to a meal, and then drove her 15 miles in the dark so that she could stay the night with us. In the hour before he left for home, I have never spoken with a man more collected and philosophical about certain death from cancer. In all aspects of his life Morton was a man of vast courage.

He was born in the province of Mukden, Manchuria, in 1930, the eldest of the three distinguished sons of the Rev Ralph Morton, Church of Scotland Missionary in China, and his wife Janet Baird, Church of Scotland Missionary in India, who had joined Ralph in China and married him. (One son, Colin, is the Minister of St Andrew's, Jerusalem, another, George, was until 1983 the MP for Manchester Moss Side; their sister is the recent widow of Bill Aitken, the African missionary.) Hugh told me that as a child in a small town in inaccessible rural Manchuria seldom visited by Chinese officials he had been much affected by the conditions and kindness of the rural Manchurian people. His parents' home was the first community centre of its kind that most of them had ever known and the Morton family were at the very centre of the community. Community and society were ingrained in Morton.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria meant that the Mortons had to return in a hurry to Britain - through many adventures - in 1938.

After two years in Cambridge the family returned to Glasgow. Morton attended Glasgow Academy. In his valedictory speech in the House of Lords in November 1994 Morton said: "About 50 years ago, as I suppose an aggressive teenager, I was unwise enough to say to an eminent lady that I preferred films to theatre. About an hour later Dame Sybil Thorndike ceased trying to persuade me that I was wrong. I remain of the same view."

Morton was blunt about his likes and dislikes and never indulged in posturing.

Reading law at Glasgow University he not only attained First Class honours but was awarded one of the very rare Distinctions. He joined the prestigious firm of Glasgow solicitors Biggart and Lumsden, making such a favourable impression that the discerning head of the firm offered him a partnership.

Morton had a passionate commitment to the Labour Party. I first met him at the Woodside by-election in 1963 when as an agent he had a great deal to do with the Labour gain and the election of Neil Carmichael, later his House of Lords colleague, as Scottish front-bench spokesman over the recently widowed Kay Elliot, the Conservative candidate - the future Baroness Elliot of Harwood, whose husband Walter Elliot had held the seat for many years in the Conservative interest. Will Marshall, the redoubtable Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, saw Morton along with John Smith as one of his future valued lawyer Scottish MPs. Morton was, however, to choose the law rather than the avenue of the House of Commons.

During these years his father was Number Two to George MacLeod in the Iona Community. Morton was immersed in its generally Christian socialist ethics.

In 1965 Hugh Morton became Advocate Depute, appointed by Lord Stott, the first Labour Lord Advocate in the Wilson government, and then worked closely with Ronald King Murray QC until 1970. This was the first of two periods as an Advocate Depute. Morton held the honourable ambition of being Lord Advocate himself one day. Had political timing worked out differently there is no doubt that his fellow Queen's Counsel and really close friend John Smith, who held Morton in the highest regard as a serious lawyer, would have made sure that he would have been appointed in a Kinnock government either to a legal post or as a minister in a UK department in the House of Lords.

As a QC Morton handled many trade-union causes, where the unions thought he was superb, not because he told them necessarily what they wanted to hear but because they felt that he genuinely cared.

During the much-publicised strike of Plessey workers in Bathgate when women night after night for three weeks slept in their factory so that it would not be closed I went alongside the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and the Transport and General Workers to see Morton with the full- time trade-union officers. Time and again he cut us short when we were being emotional and went to the heart of the matter. After leaving his advice session as counsel an experienced trade-union officer turned to me and said he would much prefer to have hard-boiled advice which was really helpful from a man who obviously cared than bags of sympathy and soft soap. It was a great and justified oblique compliment to Morton's style. He was direct and to the point.

Morton's colleagues told me that he made a considerable impact when he went to the House of Lords. On 17 June 1985 he made one of the shortest maiden speeches in the annals of Parliament - four minutes on rating revaluation, wholly to the point, in which he asked how those whose revaluation had gone up 300 per cent would be thought to do anything other than appeal.

As a judge, within weeks of his appointment to the bench in 1988 Morton was at the centre of controversy. In the Edinburgh High Court he acquitted an accused man, asserting that a confession over the death of a 73-year- old grandmother had not been made spontaneously but after the type of what he termed "amiable" approach by detectives. Morton contended that such behaviour could be more deadly than bullying in breaking the will of people of limited intelligence.

A couple of years ago Morton decided that a man should be freed on account of insufficient evidence from a charge of killing his wife by throwing her from the balcony of a Spanish holiday apartment. In high-profile cases Morton could challenge popular prejudice and did. He could also create astonishment by the severity of certain decisions. He was particularly hard on those who were found guilty of rape and had no hesitation in imposing a life sentence on a man who had committed rape within weeks of release from a previous sentence for a similar offence.

Morton created a precedent by being the first judge in Scotland to rule that damages could be awarded to parents when a baby died from injuries which could be proved to be the fault of medical staff before birth. One of his colleagues on the bench had decided that only the relatives of a "person" had a claim over his or her death and that a foetus was not a person. Morton was understandably pleased when it was his view and not that of his colleague which prevailed in the Appeal Court.

In what we all knew was his last speech in the House of Lords, Morton reflected on how justice in Scotland could be improved. He was particularly concerned about the length of time taken to dispose of child abduction cases. We had no right to be pleased if they took six months because the Hague Convention set a limit of six weeks. "We have an absurd procedure," he said, "whereby the Appeal Court listens to counsel reading out solemnly for days on end to three judges who have read the evidence that has been heard previously. The judges can do that quicker before the case even starts. That is an absurd waste of money."

Morton went on in this valedictory speech to say that the judge's role should be interventionist and not merely that of the referee. He was for the fullest possible disclosure of evidence. He wanted a "cards on the table" approach and the real issues identified and decided.

Hugh Morton was known to the more irreverent members of the Scottish legal fraternity as "Big Shug". He will be missed in Scotland as much as his colleagues in the House of Lords tell me that he will be missed in Parliament.