The Long Arms of the Law

The Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore died on the first of this month, having retired on the last of September. He was both the last Lord of Appeal in Ordinary appointed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 (just ninety-four days before their respective dissolution and appeal took effect) and the last of that group’s veterans to retire from the successor Supreme Court.

Undeterred by the recent obliteration of so many such pages, I wondered if the law lords were worth an armorial list on Wikipedia, and so have begun to draft one. As with my article last year on Speakers of the House of Commons, I found that there were quite a few names on the list who died so soon after being ennobled that they miss out being recorded in the genealogy books (and the law lords are of course life peers, so no heirs or successors can hold the place). What’s more, those books themselves are in shorter supply than they were last year – whereas Wikipedians used to have access to online scans of Burke’s Peerage from 1949 (on The Internet Archive) and 1959 (on Hathitrust), those files have been removed in the latter half of this year. Our earliest edition now is a copy of Debrett’s Peerage from 1936, and that is a poor-quality scan with many sections of prose missing.

Of course, nowadays the country’s highest judges would not be mentioned in such volumes at all: The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which brought about the change barred those justices already holding peerages from resuming their seats in the House of Lords until their time on the court had ended. Further, a political decision was made that subsequent appointments to the new court would not be ennobled at all, but merely granted courtesy titles akin to those of hereditary peers’ heirs apparent. An exception was made at the start of this year when the new President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed, who had already used the courtesy title Lord Reed since his appointment to the College of Justice in 1998, was substantively created Baron Reed of Allermuir, of Sundridge Park in the London Borough of Bromley, under the Life Peerages Act 1958. It remains to be seen whether this favour will be repeated for his successors in that office.

How then, do I find the missing entries? My experience hunting down the speakers’ arms taught me the importance of looking for unofficial records, especially fan labour. I discovered some time ago the Flickr account of Baz Manning, an older heraldist who has carefully photographed a lot of armorial art and architecture over the years. In particular he has uploaded a scrupulous catalogue of the coats of arms displayed on the walls and windows of Lincoln’s Inn, where so many of Britain’s senior lawyers and judges are trained. The collection of shields of the institution’s alumni stretches back centuries, and proved very helpful to me in resuming my contributions to the Commons, which had petered out in the previous month due to running out of source material. The mean real drawback to using this method is that I have no access to the text of the original blazon, and so can only copy what the previous artist has done, and if any charge or ordinary is unclear in the image I see then it is not possible to identify it. I would not attempt to reverse engineer the blazon from the depiction and risk getting any parts wrong.

Obviously not all of the UK’s judiciary went to Lincoln’s Inn – or even necessarily to the other Inns of Court – but the proportion who did is significant enough to keep my hobby going for the present, and hopefully the presence of such a large armorial display in such a prestigious location dedicated specifically to legal professionals should bolster my case (ahem) for the notability of an armorial list for the law lords, so that it would not be so casually junked as were the others.

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