Lord Donaldson

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Born: 6 October, 1920, in London.

Died: 31 August, 2005, in Lymington, aged 84.

HE WAS a reforming and intellectual judge who served with much distinction as Master of the Rolls but he will be remembered for his association with the Maguire Seven trial of 1976. The family was accused of passing arms and supplies to the IRA that were undoubtedly used in the Woolwich and Guildford atrocities. It was a case that was to return to haunt him and blight an otherwise distinguished career. In 1990, an enquiry headed by Sir John May reassessed the evidence of the original trial and the injustices imparted upon the Maguire family. Sir John concluded Mr Justice Donaldson (as he then was) had "mishandled and misunderstood crucial evidence".

It was a shame that such a public exposure be made; especially in Donaldson's case. He was a perceptive and intuitive judge who had a sharp grasp of the law and made important contributions to modernising various aspects of the legal system - especially employment and maritime. He remained fearless in his defence of the proper use of the law and as recently as July, he joined five other leading judges who remonstrated against politicians - including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair - who called on judges not to impede their anti-terrorism proposals.

In typical forthright manner, Donaldson wrote: "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." Donaldson was an avid believer that it was the judiciary's responsibility to interpret the law and to remain independent throughout.

John Francis Donaldson was born into a prosperous family - his father was a Harley Street specialist - and after Charterhouse School he read law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was commissioned into the Royal Signals in 1941 and then served with the Guards armoured division from 1942-45.

After the war, he returned to the law and joined the Middle Temple. He became a QC in 1961 and a High Court Judge on the Queen's Bench five years later. Various high-profile appointments ensued: notably as chairman of the National Industrial Relations Court in 1971, which caused some unrest at Westminster. It was viewed as a wholly political appointment by the prime minister, Edward Heath, and was much criticised by the shadow spokesman for employment, Michael Foot. The incoming Wilson administration immediately closed the Industrial Court on coming to power.

Prior to becoming Master of the Rolls in 1982, Donaldson was a Lord Justice of Appeal. The Maguire Seven was a complex case, which Donaldson oversaw with his customary patience and courtesy. But it turned out that the decision was a miscarriage of justice and Donaldson - similar to other wrongful court actions of the era - was left carrying much of the blame. Most of that criticism rested on his unwillingness to allow fresh evidence be presented on the last day of the trial. Had it been heard, it would have completely destroyed the case for the prosecution.

That and the fact Donaldson allowed inadmissible evidence to be presented in court in front of the jury was viewed, by the inquiry of 1990, to be ill advised. But for his part, Donaldson interpreted the law on the evidence provided and gave a balanced summing up. He was also much hurt when the press continued to criticise him for not attending the inquiry to justify his actions. In fact, he had never been called to appear.

It was in the field of maritime law that Donaldson may be best remembered. He certainly advanced the laws on sea-faring safety after the tragic sinking with all hands of the bulk carrier Derbyshire in 1980. His chairmanship of that enquiry was lucid and recommended improvements in maritime laws. A similar enquiry after the sinking of the Sea Empress tanker off the Welsh coast in 1996 furthered Donaldson's expertise in the subject.

That expertise had been brought into sharp focus in 1993 when the Braer oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Shetland. It was a dramatic disaster with the Braer carrying 615,000 barrels of light crude oil in its hold. It broke up while discharging its cargo into the sea within a few days: with the obvious consequence to the natural and human life. Attempts at salvage and rescue were greatly hampered by the force-10 gales. The Donaldson report was acclaimed worldwide for its clarity and realistic proposals. These included a ban on tankers sailing through the Minches.

Donaldson was a reforming and astute Master of the Rolls. He was one of the first senior members of the judiciary to become cyber literate and insisted that computers be used to speed up court cases. He also deplored time wasting tactics too often employed by QCs. Throughout his career, Donaldson upheld parliament and the rule of law. The Human Rights Act was a constant worry to him and he dismissed Mr Blair's proposals ("vague references to amending the act") as impractical. The judiciary he said as recently as last month have asked for "the Human Rights Act to be reviewed and if it cannot be properly amended, repealed".

During his time as Master of the Rolls, he acted as a proud and happy consort to his wife, Dame Mary Donaldson, when, in 1992, she was the first female Lord Mayor of London. They made an impressive couple at Mansion House dinners and other such functions.

Donaldson sat on the crossbenches in the Lords and was often heard in debates that concerned him. In particular, he supported the Countryside Alliance in their fight against the ban on hunting as recently as last year. Donaldson despised the manner the government had railroaded the new law on to the statute books and, indeed, considered it illegal. "I have no very strong views on hunting," Donaldson said, "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."

The sad death of his wife two years ago was a great loss but Donaldson remained active and as articulate as ever. He was a man of much grace and charm with a bright sense of humour and he conjured up a delightfully relaxed persona in the courtroom. He always wore his judge's wig at a jaunty angle and invariably sucked boiled sweets during the hearing. He was known for his vast knowledge of the law but preferred to practise it in a humane and informal manner. His entry in Who's Who is given care of the House of Lords but then Donaldson lists his home telephone number in Hampshire.

Donaldson, who had married Mary Warwick in 1945, is survived by their son and two daughters.