Obituary: Sir Michael Eastham

Thomas Michael Eastham, lawyer, born 26 June 1920, called to the Bar Lincoln's Inn 1947 (Bencher 1972), QC 1964, Recorder of Deal 1968-71, Cambridge 1971 (Honorary Recorder 1972), a Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-78, Kt 1978, Judge of the High Court of Justice Family Division 1978-93, married 1942 Mary Billings (two daughters), died 4 March 1993.

MICHAEL EASTHAM was a High Court Judge of the Family Division for nearly 15 years, but it is as an advocate that many will best remember him. He and James Comyn (later Mr Justice Comyn) were perhaps the last of the great all-round common law silks. Eastham's versatility was remarkable, particularly when viewed from today's standpoint of specialisation at the Bar. As a judge he was known for his lack of pomposity, his human understanding and the speed with which he could grasp the essential points of a complex case.

Eastham was born in 1920, the youngest son of Sir Tom Eastham QC, who had practised with success on the Northern Circuit and later became an Official Referee. He was educated at Harrow, Grenoble University and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. War service as an officer in the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment included raids on the French coast in small boats while he was attached to the Commandos.

He was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1947. He soon acquired a substantial common law practice. An early success was his performance before the Lynskey Tribunal in 1948. In 1954 he and John (later Judge) Williams started their own chambers at 5 Essex Court. They were clerked first by Tom Burn (a wartime Brigadier and OBE) and then by Peter Thomas - both considerable characters in their own right.

Eastham's practice flourished and in 1964 he took silk. His 14 years as leading counsel saw him become one of the giants of the common law bar. His quickness of intellect left most opponents and judges struggling to keep up. He was an extremely forceful advocate. He had unusually bright and penetrating eyes. Normally they carried a twinkle, but he used them to great effect in cross- examination: there were few witnesses who could look him in the eye when answering an awkward question.

Such was Eastham's versatility that he was briefed to appear in all three divisions of the High Court, to argue law in the appellate courts, to prosecute and defend in crime and to conduct hearings before tribunals such as planning inspectors and commons commissioners.

Eastham was frequently involved in cases which made headlines in the press. He appeared for Lord Lucan's mother in the inquest into the death of Sandra Rivett. He represented the Sunday People in the theatrical 'Spanking Colonel' libel action, when the plaintiff was awarded a halfpenny damages. He successfully defended Janie Jones, the singer, on a charge of sexual blackmail of a company director. Afterwards she referred to Eastham as 'My Tiger'.

This was the raffish side of Eastham's practice, but he was also frequently briefed in heavy civil litigation, such as the case in which the Government's cancellation of Sir Freddie Laker's 'Skytrain' licence was in issue. He was brought in to lead in the House of Lords in the successful challenge to the Minister of Agriculture's refusal to interfere with Milk Marketing Board policy. As a junior, he acted for Lord Carrington, then First Lord of the Admiralty, in the Vassall Tribunal. In 1971 he himself was appointed to head the Department of Trade inquiry into the collapse of the Vehicle and General Insurance Co. Next year Eastham derived considerable pleasure from his success on behalf of David Mason, the father of a thalidomide child, who was dissatisfied with the damages offered in settlement of the class claim by all other parents of thalidomide children and who fought a lone battle for compensation.

Eastham ran his chambers for 24 years in a relaxed and informal manner. He gave everyone a nickname and there was much teasing and irreverence.

He was always something of a rebel himself. He was convinced he had failed in his ambition to gain a High Court appointment, even though he had been elected a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn and had been appointed Recorder of Deal and then of Cambridge. The latter had always been a sure pointer to the High Court Bench. He used to describe himself as 'Chairman of the Passover Club'.

When the appointment finally came, at the age of 58, it was to the Family Division, with which he had not been particularly associated in silk. Many feared he would be bored and would agitate for transfer to the Queen's Bench Division. In fact his down-to-earth manner and his understanding of human frailty made him a skilled and compassionate judge ideal for family work. He was perhaps at his best in the big financial disputes, such as those of Mick Jagger and Baron von Thyssen.

Eastham frequently sat in the criminal division of the Court of Appeal and tried civil and criminal cases on circuit. In Manchester in 1983 it fell to him to deal with the confrontation between Eddie Shah and the National Graphical Association. Eastham imposed substantial fines on the union for breaching of an injunction restraining unlawful picketing.

Eastham had few interests outside the law. He remained a frequent visitor to his old chambers, particularly if there was the possibility of a good lunch, which he enjoyed as much as any man. Above all he was devoted to his wife Mary, with whom he celebrated his golden wedding anniversary the year before he died, and to his daughters, Jane and Penny.

For the last two years of his life he was stricken with a rare form of leukaemia which confined him to hospital almost every weekend. It was typical of him that he worked on and that he discharged himself from hospital a few days before he died in order to finish a case which had been worrying him.

(Photograph omitted)