Former Master of Rolls Lord Donaldson dies

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The Independent Online

John Francis Donaldson was the third most senior judge in England and Wales from 1982 to 1992.

He died unexpectedly at his home in Lymington, Hampshire, yesterday, son Michael said.

Lord Donaldson was seen as open and approachable during his judicial career and, unusually, listed his home telephone number in Who's Who.

In July this year, he was among a number of senior judicial figures who spoke out against politicians - including Prime Minister Tony Blair - who called on judges not to block new anti-terrorism proposals.

Lord Donaldson indicated that judges would continue to interpret the law independently of the Government's demands.

Memorably, Lord Donaldson said: "It is the job of the judges to ensure that the government of the day does not exceed its powers, which is a permanent desire of all governments."

In 1976 he presided at the trial of the Maguire Seven - a case which returned to haunt him just as other senior judges were dogged by other miscarriages of justice of the period.

In 1990, an inquiry by Sir John May into the injustice suffered by the Maguires said that Mr Justice Donaldson, as he was then, had failed to appreciate that the sudden emergence of new evidence on the last day of the trial removed the whole basis of the prosecution case.

He also allowed inadmissible evidence to be presented to the jury, the report added.

Lord Donaldson felt the press had unfairly attacked him for having refused to give evidence to the inquiry when in fact he had never been asked to attend.

The judge won admiration for his reforms as head of the civil division, where he slashed backlogs and introducing computerisation.

He attacked time-wasting practices by cutting down on oral speeches and bringing in "skeleton arguments" which barristers must submit ahead of a trial.

He also insisted on judgements being supplied to court reporters.

After retiring from the judiciary, he entered last year's battle over the Government's ban on hunting with dogs.

As a Crossbencher in the House of Lords he backed a legal action in which campaigners argued that the way the Hunting Bill was railroaded on to the statute books was unlawful.

"I have no strong views about hunting - but I have very strong views about freedom and the right of choice, and I think the evidence is very strongly in favour of the hunting people," Lord Donaldson said.

The son of a Harley Street gynaecologist, he was born on October 6, 1920.

Educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was commissioned in the Royal Signals in 1941 and served with the Guards Armoured Divisional Signals in the UK and north-west Europe from 1942 to 1945.

Called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1946, he was made a Queen's Counsel in 1961 and a High Court judge in the Queen's Bench Division in 1966.

He was president of the ill-fated National Industrial Relations Court from 1971 to 1974.

Labour MPs saw his appointment by Edward Heath as political and the court was shut down by Michael Foot, the succeeding Labour government's Employment Secretary.

Lord Donaldson was a Lord Justice of Appeal from 1979 to his appointment as Master of the Rolls in 1982.

In court he was known for sucking boiled sweets and wearing his judicial wig at an angle.

Lord Donaldson made a major contribution to the development of maritime law.

His recommendations as chairman of the inquiry set up after the 1993 Braer oil tanker ran aground off the Shetland Isles have been internationally acclaimed.

In the mid 1990s he carried out an independent review of the evidence relating to the 1980 loss with all hands of the bulk carrier Derbyshire, and later an inquiry following the 1996 Sea Empress oil tanker incident in west Wales.

As recently as August 17 this year a letter from Lord Donaldson appeared in the Times newspaper on the Government's plans to step up deportation of terror suspects in the wake of the London bombings.

He indicated that judges would take account of any agreements with foreign countries not to torture any people deported to them, "but they will not seek to balance the risks to the deportee against the risks to the United Kingdom of refraining from deportation".

He added: "If Parliament wishes to amend the Human Rights Act to require the undertaking of this balance, it can do so and the judges will seek to give effect to it.

"But in my view it is a wholly political exercise. The only merit of such an amendment would be to relieve the Home Secretary of a responsibility which is truly his."

His wife, Dame Mary, was the first woman Lord Mayor of London from 1983 to 1984 and died in October 2003. He leaves son Michael and daughters Margaret-Ann and Jennifer.