Obituary: The Rt Hon Lord William Prosser QC

Rt Hon Lord William Prosser QC: Respected Court of Session judge whose contribution to Scottish life was extensive
Rt Hon Lord William Prosser QC: Respected Court of Session judge whose contribution to Scottish life was extensive
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Born: 23 November, 1934, in Edinburgh. Died: March 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 80

Lord Prosser, a former Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and Court of Session judge, was one of the most learned legal minds in Scotland. He was also active in preserving the face of historic Scotland, serving with distinction on both the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. He was a keen supporter of the arts and on the boards of The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and the Royal Fine Arts Commission for Scotland.

Prosser was a man of acute intelligence with an incisive mind, who greatly enhanced the reputation of the legal profession in Scotland and brought to all the boards on which he served great clarity and vision.

Sir David Edward, former Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities, knew Prosser since they were undergraduates at Oxford. He told The Scotsman yesterday: “By any standard Willie must be one of the most intellectually outstanding minds in the Scottish legal profession – of any generation. We were called to the Bar on the same day. He had a deep sympathy of human frailties and a lively sense of fun. I remember him with great affection.”

William David Prosser was the younger son of an Edinburgh solicitor who had won the MC in the First World War. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy where he was Dux of the school and a senior Ephor (prefect). Prosser often returned to the school to talk to societies and the sixth form.

He read classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford where he gained a double first and then read law at the University of Edinburgh. He was admitted to the Faculty in 1962 and took silk in 1974. Prosser became Vice-Dean of the Faculty in 1979 and Dean in 1983. In 1986 he succeeded Lord Stewart as a judge and he retired in 2001.

From the bench Prosser earned the total confidence and respect of his colleagues. His command of the law was absolute and his cogent understanding of the intricacies of a case was often remarked upon.

All those who appeared before him rated Prosser as one of the most courteous and shrewd judges. He was always balanced in his questioning and exact in his summings-up.

Prosser asked penetrative questions from the bench but was always courteous. If QCs presented their cases lucidly and were on top of the facts Prosser was the most generous-minded of judges.

Lord Abernethy, who served as his vice-dean at the Faculty of Advocates, recalled: “Willie was a towering figure at the Bar. I worked with him closely and we had a most happy working relationship. Apart from modernising the pension system for widows and orphans Willie inaugurated a biannual conference of members of the European Bar; the meeting did much to enhance the prestige of the Scottish Bar. When it was in Edinburgh he hosted it magnificently.”

In 2003, in Scotland in Sunday, Prosser argued in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, saying the sale of the drug should be controlled in the same way as tobacco and alcohol: “The government’s current cannabis laws,” Prosser suggested, “were clearly not working.”

Also that year Prosser vehemently attacked the City of Edinburgh Council’s plans to ban cars on Princes Street and re-route them through neighbouring residential areas. “For Edinburgh of all cities to be so casual and careless in relation to its incomparable heritage is sad beyond words.”

One of his lifelong passions was France; he was a trustee of the Franco-British Council. He kept a flat in the Pigalle district of Paris and was devoted to the city and its famous galleries.

Dr Anne Corbett, who was vice chair of the council, remembers: “Willie argued that we should enhance Franco-British understanding through common interests in the arts and human rights. Willie’s effectiveness owed much to his wonderful way with words spiced with humour. Wisdom without pomposity.”

Prosser’s contribution to life in Scotland was extensive. His energies and commitment were exceptionally widespread and he was of immense assistance, for example, in establishing the University of the Highlands and Islands.

He helped it gain university status in 2011 and served on its Court. Similarly, as chairman of the Scottish Historic Buildings he was instrumental in saving such buildings as Lady Cathcart House, Ayr; Strathleven House, Dumbartonshire; Auchinleck House, Ayrshire and Law’s Close, Kirkcaldy.

Prosser was a much admired man of the Scottish legal profession. He was a man of an exceptional intellect and had a powerful memory. Yet many friends remember his calm and gracious modesty and willingness to help others.

One colleague recalled: “Willie kept painting the sky blue, believing it is always possible for people in positions of public responsibility to do better by their fellow citizens.”

Lord Prosser married Vanessa Lindsay in 1964. She and their two sons and two daughters survive him. Their son David is the current head of art at Edinburgh Academy.