Obituary: Sir Basil Nield

Basil Nield personified Shakespeare's view that a man in his life plays many parts. In Nield's case, with great distinction, he pursued the roles of lawyer, churchman, politician, soldier and bon viveur.

He and his twin sister, Beryl, were the youngest of five children born to Charles Edwin Nield, a solicitor, JP and Registrar of the Liverpool High Court. Their mother was an MBE and PhD - the first female graduate ever to obtain a doctorate at St Andrews University.

Nield was educated at Harrow (where he served as a governor, 1961-71) and Magdalen College, Oxford, during which time he became chairman of the Chester Conservative Association. In 1925 at the age of 22 he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple and entered chambers in Liverpool, where he practised in general common law, on the Northern Circuit. His meticulous preparation, the quality of his advocacy and his unfailing courtesy made it obvious that he was destined for success at the Bar, and his practice grew. He then entered the chambers of David Maxwell Fyfe (later Lord Kilmuir and a Tory Lord Chancellor). He and his wife Sylvia became his closest friends.

In 1938, foreseeing correctly the implications of the Munich crisis, he joined the Officers' Emergency Reserve. Meanwhile, in 1940 he entered the House of Commons as Conservative Member for Chester. The same year he was commissioned into a captain's rank, and served successively as major, GHQ Middle Eastern Force (MEF) and, in 1942, as President, Palestine Military Courts, Jerusalem, and on the HQ staffs of East Africa Force, Eritrea and the Eighth Army, Persia and Iraq, and of the Second Army through the Low Countries and on the Rhine. He was mentioned in despatches when serving as Deputy Judge Advocate General in the MEF. His service in these roles was recognised by a MBE (mil) and his advancement to lieutenant colonel as Judge Advocate, sitting in on the courts martial in Germany.

He was returned to the Commons in the 1945 general election despite the Labour landslide. Coincidentally, he applied for and took Silk. He now ran his political and legal lives in parallel. As the Member for Chester he successfully sponsored what for him was a landmark: a Private Member's Bill, leading to the Adoption of Children Act, 1949. He saw it as the precursor to a state of affairs in which in matters of inheritance and succession an adopted child would be in a position similar to that of a natural child.

Nield was among the most dapper of the Members. Five foot seven and shiningly shod, his penetrating brown eyes missed nothing. A provocative and witty speaker and a great debunker of pomposity, Nield was popular both in the Commons and his constituency.

In 1948 he served as Recorder of Salford and, in 1952, was elected Master of the Bench of the Inner Temple. His advancement to CBE took place in 1956, at which time, too, he was chosen as the first permanent judge of the Crown Court, Manchester. This meant that he had to leave the House of Commons; a change which exhilarated him, though he missed the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.

Such was the accuracy of Nield's judgments that it was rare for a sentence of his to be altered on appeal. Always humanitarian, however, in his dealings, he is on record as having modified one of his own sentences. After thinking all weekend about a prison sentence he had imposed, he had the man brought back into court from the cells. He told him that he might have been too severe and he reduced the sentence.

Always assiduous in his work as a judge, nevertheless Nield had an eye for the lighter side of life, in and out of court. This was the genesis of his book Farewell to the Assizes (1972), a series of entertaining memoirs illustrated by his own line- drawings and photographs. It marked too his singular achievement as the only judge to have sat in all 61 Assize towns in England and Wales before the abolition of the Assize system in 1972.

It was appropriate that the graceful dedication of the book should be to his twin sister, a mayor of Chester, to whom he was extremely close and who, like him, never married. She helped him a great deal when he was an MP and often sat beside him on the Bench. Her death, 20 years ago, was a heavy blow to him.

Forever restless, Nield loved to travel. He was a great "collector" of cities all over the world. A keen and accomplished photographer, he used his beautiful pictures to illustrate his Christmas cards, which were much prized among his friends.

Equally prized were his birthday and Christmas parties in his flat in the Temple. There, his sparkle and charm were let free among his great variety of friends. There too he achieved one of the honours he prized above all: Treasurer of the Inner Temple.

His last years were spent in the King Edward VII Convalescent Home for Officers, at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight.

Avril Mollison

Basil Edward Nield, judge and politician: born 7 May 1903; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1925, Master of the Bench 1952, Reader 1976, Treasurer 1977; MP (Conservative) City of Chester 1940-56; MBE (mil) 1943, CBE 1956; KC 1945; Recorder of Salford 1948-56; Recorder and first permanent Judge of Crown Court at Manchester 1956-60; Kt 1957; Judge of High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division 1960-78; died 4 December 1996.