Obituary: Sir Denis Dobson

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The Independent Online
Denis Dobson was a civil servant of memorable personality. He was outstandingly energetic and able, and his attention was strongly focused on the work of the Lord Chancellor's Office, in which he served for 30 years. For him it was both his vocation and his hobby. He became a legend in Whitehall for his commitment to his job and for the vigour with which he expressed his views, particularly when dealing with anyone who disagreed with him.

Originally from the North, he went to Charterhouse and to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a First in Part I of the Law Tripos and in the LLB examination. He started his career in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he was articled to a firm of local solicitors, and in 1933 was admitted a solicitor. He then moved to London to join a firm there, but it was not a success. In consequence he very soon left them and joined a firm of parliamentary agents, where he laid the foundation of his skills as a draftsman, which was the area of the law in which he most excelled and where he was most at home.

Dobson's career was interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served in the Royal Air Force, first in the Western Desert as Administrative Plans Officer with the Desert Air Force, working with the Eighth Army, including service through El Alamein, and later in Malta and in Italy. His drive and energy were already recognisable, and by the end of his service there he had become Senior Personnel Staff Officer to the Desert Air Force. His ambition was to join the legal branch of the Foreign Service at the end of the war, but tuberculosis ruled this out and he went instead into the Statutory Publications Office.

This was a small Whitehall office which had responsibility for the publication of statutes and statutory instruments and, although the canvas on which Dobson then worked was relatively narrow, the experience he gained there was to prove useful to him in his later career.

The Lord Chancellor's Office was then very small, and contained only a few lawyers. Sir Albert Napier, the then Permanent Secretary, was anxious to strengthen it, and Dobson was introduced to him by Sir Thomas Barnes, the Treasury Solicitor, under whom the Statutory Publications Office came. Dobson joined the Lord Chancellor's Office in April 1947 and attracted immediate attention because of his energy, his keen interest in law reform and legislation, and his command of detail.

Napier realised that Dobson would inevitably be a strong contender for the post of Permanent Secretary. At that time only barristers were qualified for appointment, and he therefore advised Dobson to have himself struck off the roll of solicitors and be called to the Bar. This he did, being called by Middle Temple in 1951. On Napier's retirement in 1954, George Coldstream was appointed Permanent Secretary and Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, and Dobson became his deputy in both offices.

Dobson's skills in the field of legislation proved of the greatest value. Drawing on his earlier experience, Dobson made himself master of every detail of Bills with which the Lord Chancellor was concerned. But he went beyond that, and regularly briefed his minister on points in Bills for which other ministers were responsible, where Dobson considered it would be desirable for the Lord Chancellor to intervene, to correct some defect or infelicity. Because the legislation was frequently important, but was having to be dealt with under pressure of time, salvoes were constantly being exchanged between Dobson, parliamentary counsel and departmental lawyers. His opening form of address to his opponent, "Now look here, X", became legendary across Whitehall.

In 1968 Coldstream retired and Dobson, at the age of 60, was appointed to succeed him as Permanent Secretary and Clerk of the Crown.

One challenge which Dobson, as head of the office, had to face was posed by the Royal Commission of Assizes and Quarter Sessions which reported in 1969. It sat under the chairmanship of Lord Beeching, who brought to its work the same thorough, explicitly quantitative, approach as he had done to his reorganisation of the railways. The Commission recommended a massive change in the arrangements for the administration of justice, replacing the centuries-old system of assize and quarter sessions courts by a single Crown Court with jurisdiction to sit wherever it was needed.

Of greater concern to Dobson was the Commission's recommendation that a unified court service should be set up under the Lord Chancellor, to run the new system, replacing the old, largely part-time staff, most of whom had been provided by the local authorities. This would involve a huge change in the character of the Lord Chancellor's Office, turning it from a small office, largely concerned with advising the Lord Chancellor, to a major department.

Although a radical in his youth, Dobson had become increasingly conservative in outlook as he grew older, and he had considerable reservations about the Royal Commission's report. The lawyers working on it in the office had to be ready, at a moment's notice, to justify every detail in it. Though this on occasion could be wearing, Dobson then generously shouldered the responsibility for defending the Bill against criticisms by outsiders.

No one who worked with Dobson will forget him. His forceful vigour and the velocity of his intelligence, his absorption in detail and his command of the law made him memorable. On the debit side (and he knew this himself), his quick temper made him difficult to work with. He was in fact mis-cast. His conservative temperament made him mistrustful of change, so that policy issues were less attractive to him than the law itself. He had all the qualities needed to make a first-class parliamentary draftsman, including a very quick mind, a most elegant style of writing, a mastery of legislative and governmental procedure, and a terrier-like attention to detail.

The decision to appoint him to the Lord Chancellor's Office was entirely understandable, but it was not in fact the best outlet for his very considerable talents.

Derek Oulton

Denis William Dobson, lawyer and civil servant; OBE 1947; Deputy Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and Assistant Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor 1954-68; CB 1959, KCB 1969; Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor 1968-77; QC 1971; member, Advisory Council on Public Records 1977-83; married 1934 Thelma Swinburne (marriage dissolved 1947; one son, one daughter), 1948 Elizabeth Allen (two sons, one daughter); died 15 December 1995.