Obituary: Sir Joseph Cantley

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The Independent Online
Joseph Donaldson Cantley, lawyer, born 8 August 1910, called to the Bar Middle Temple 1933, OBE 1945, QC 1954, Bencher Middle Temple 1963, Kt 1965, Judge of the High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division 1965-85, Treasurer Middle Temple 1981, married 1966 Hilda Gerrard, died 6 January 1993.

THE news of Joseph Cantley's death will have been learned with great sadness by his many friends and nowhere more than in Manchester and on the Northern


Joe Cantley was and remained all his life a Mancunian. His father was a Manchester general practitioner. Joe was educated at Manchester Grammar School, where he had a distinguished academic career. His sights were always on the Bar, and he read law at Manchester University. He joined the Middle Temple and was called by them to the Bar in 1933, having not only gained first-class honours in his Bar final but also won the Certificate of Honour, being placed first in that class.

It was always his intention to practise in Manchester and he became a pupil of Denis Gerrard, already a busy junior on the Northern Circuit. At that time work was less scarce in the provinces than in London and Cantley began to acquire a small but good practice. But, as with all his generation, his career was interrupted by the War. He served throughout first in the Royal Artillery and then on staff appointments. His service took him to North Africa and Italy and when the war ended he was a lieutenant-colonel.

On demobilisation he returned to rebuild the practice he had left. Unusually for a junior with a circuit practice he became expert in cases involving contract law. While he had his share of personal-injury work it was in the field of contract law that he made his reputation. In 1954 he took silk and became a most successful practitioner with a wide range of work on the circuit.

In 1960 he became Judge of the Salford Hundred Court of Record, a strange court of great antiquity with unusual jurisdiction. Its reputation had been rebuilt by his predecessors in their appointment and his knowledge of contract law served him well in disposing of the business disputes with which that court used to deal. He also held office as Judge of Appeal in the Isle of Man.

It came as no surprise to the profession when in 1965 he was appointed to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court. He proved an outstandingly successful trial judge, patient, courteous and decisive. It was rare indeed to fault a judgment or summing-up of his in the Court of Appeal.

In 1966 he, seemingly a lifelong bachelor, to the delight of his friends married Hilda Gerrard, the widow of his friend and former pupil master who had sadly died young after a very short career on the Bench. This marriage was one of great happiness. Cantley delighted in circuit work and was always happy going round the country with his wife, making new friends wherever they went.

He had a charming wit and a happy choice of language. But he never used that wit at the expense of a defendant or a witness. He could however use it quickly to deflate the pomposity of counsel. The Old Bailey was not his favourite court. On one occasion a barrister protested at what Cantley proposed to do: 'My Lord in all my experience I have never known such an order made in this building.' 'Well,' Cantley replied in a flash, 'you won't be able to say that again, now, will you?'

In 1970, when the new Courts Act was about to come into force, he was appointed Presiding Judge on the Northern Circuit. No better appointment could have been made to introduce all the proposed changes in Manchester and Liverpool. He held that appointment until 1974.

He eschewed publicity and was little known to the public before it fell to him to try the Jeremy Thorpe case. He was delighted when asked for a photograph to be told that no press agency had a photograph of him.

He had been made a Bencher of the Middle Temple in 1963 and in 1981 he served as Treasurer. He had been asked to accept appointment as Presiding Judge on the South-eastern Circuit in order to secure some much-needed reforms in the administration of criminal justice in the London area. But the two offices could not be held together and his loyalty to his Inn prevailed. He was an excellent professional. In his latter years he and his wife lived in the Temple and were strong supporters of the Temple church.

His final years were unhappily clouded by ill-health but he leaves a memory of a model trial judge and a delightful friend.