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Cockburn, Sir Alexander James Edmund

COCKBURN, SIR ALEXANDER JAMES EDMUND, 10th Bart. (1802-1880), lord chief justice of England, was born on the 24th of December 1802, of ancient Scottish stock. He was the son of Alexander, fourth son of Sir James Cockburn, 6th baronet, his three uncles, who had successively held the title, dying without heirs. His father was British envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the state of Columbia, and married Yolande, daughter of the vicomte de Vignier. Young Alexander was at one time intended for the diplomatic service, and frequently during the legal career which he ultimately adopted he was able to make considerable use of the knowledge of foreign languages, especially French, with which birth and early education had equipped him. He was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, of which he was elected a fellow, and afterwards an honorary fellow. He entered at the Middle Temple in 1825, and was called to the bar in 1829. He joined the western circuit, and for some time such practice as he was able to obtain lay at the Devon sessions, quarter sessions at that time affording an opening and a school of advocacy to young counsel not to be found anywhere fifty years later. In London he had so little to do that only the persuasion of friends induced him to keep his London chambers open. Three years after his call to the bar, however, the Reform Bill was passed, and the petitions which followed the ensuing general election gave rise to a large number of new questions for the decision of election committees, and afforded an opening of which he promptly availed himself. The decisions of the committees had not been reported since 1821, and with M. C. Rowe, another member of the western circuit, Cockburn undertook a new series of reports. They only published one volume, but the work was well done, and in 1833 Cockburn had his first parliamentary brief.

In 1834 Cockburn was well enough thought of to be made a member of the commission to inquire into the state of the corporations of England and Wales. Other parliamentary work followed; but he had ambition to be more than a parliamentary counsel, and attended diligently on his circuit, besides appearing before committees. In 1841 he was made a Q.C., and in that year a charge of simony, brought against his uncle, William, dean of York, enabled him to appear conspicuously in a case which attracted considerable public attention, the proceedings taking the form of a motion for prohibition duly obtained against the ecclesiastical court, which had deprived Dr Cockburn of his office. Not long after this, Sir Robert Peel's secretary, Edward Drummond, was shot by the crazy Scotsman, Daniel M'Naughten, and Cockburn, briefed on behalf of the assassin, not only made a very brilliant speech, which established the defence of insanity, but also secured the full publicity of a long report in the Morning Chronicle of the 6th of March 1843. Another well-known trial in which he appeared a year later was that of Wood v. Peel (The Times, 2nd and 3rd of July 1844), the issue being in form to determine the winner of a bet (the Gaming Act was passed in the following year) as to the age of the Derby winner Running Rein - in substance to determine, if possible, the vexed question whether Running Rein was a four-year-old or a three-year-old when he was racing as the latter. Running Rein could not be produced by Mr Wood, and Baron Alderson took a strong view of this circumstance, so that Cockburn found himself on the losing side, while his strenuous advocacy of his client's cause had led him into making, in his opening speech, strictures on Lord George Bentinck's conduct in the case which had better have been reserved to a later stage. He was, however, a hard fighter, but not an unfair one - a little irritable at times, but on the whole a courteous gentleman, and his practice went on increasing.

In 1847 he decided to stand for parliament, and was elected without a contest Liberal M.P. for Southampton. His speech in the House of Commons on behalf of the government in the Don Pacifico dispute with Greece commended him to Lord John Russell, who appointed him solicitor-general in 1850 and attorney-general in 1851, a post which he held till the resignation of the ministry in February 1852. During the short administration of Lord Derby which followed, Sir Frederic Thesiger was attorney-general, and Cockburn was engaged against him in the case of R. v. Newman, on the prosecution of Achilli. This was the trial of a criminal information for libel filed against John Henry Newman, who had denounced a scandalous and profligate friar named Achilli, then lecturing on Roman Catholicism in England. Newman pleaded justification; but the jury who heard the case in the Queen's Bench, with Lord Campbell presiding, found that the justification was not proved except in one particular: a verdict which, together with the methods of the judge and the conduct of the audience, attracted considerable comment. The verdict was set aside, and a new trial ordered, but none ever took place. In December 1852, under Lord Aberdeen's ministry, Cockburn became again attorney-general, and so remained until 1856, taking part in many celebrated trials, such as the Hopwood Will Case in 1855, and the Swynfen Will Case, but notably leading for the crown in the trial of William Palmer of Rugeley in Staffordshire - an ex-medical man who had taken to the turf, and who had poisoned a friend of similar pursuits named Cook with strychnine, in order to obtain money from his estate by forgery and otherwise. Cockburn made an exhaustive study of the medical aspects of the case, and the prisoner's comment when convicted after a twelve days' trial was, alluding to the attorney-general's advocacy, "It was the riding that did it." In 1854 Cockburn was made recorder of Bristol. In 1856 he became chief justice of the common pleas. He inherited the baronetcy in 1858. In 1859 Lord Campbell became chancellor, and Cockburn became chief justice of the Queen's Bench, continuing as a judge for twenty-four years and dying in harness. On Friday, the 19th of November 1880, he tried causes with special juries at Westminster; on Saturday, the 20th, he presided over a court for the consideration of crown cases reserved; he walked home, and on that night he died of angina pectoris at his house in Hertford Street.

Sir Alexander Cockburn earned and deserved a high reputation as a judge. He was a man of brilliant cleverness and rapid intuition rather than of profound and laboriously cultivated intellect. He had been a great advocate at the bar, with a charm of voice and manner, fluent and persuasive rather than learned; but before he died he was considered a good lawyer, some assigning his unquestioned improvement in this respect to his frequent association on the bench with Blackburn. He had notoriously little sympathy with the Judicature Acts. Many were of opinion that he was inclined to take an advocate's view of the cases before him, making up his mind as to their merits prematurely and, in consequence, wrongly, as well as giving undue prominence to the views which he so formed; but he was beyond doubt always in intention, and generally in fact, scrupulously fair. It is not necessary to enumerate the many causes célèbres at which Sir Alexander Cockburn presided as a judge. It was thought that he went out of his way to arrange that they should come before him, and his successor, Lord Coleridge, writing in 1881 to Lord Bramwell, to make the offer that he should try the murderer Lefroy as a last judicial act before retiring, added, "Poor dear Cockburn would hardly have given you such a chance." Be this as it may, Cockburn tried all cases which came before him, whether great or small, with the same thoroughness, courtesy and dignity, so that no counsel or suitor could complain that he had not been fully heard in a matter in which the issues were seemingly trivial; while he certainly gave great attention to the elaboration of his judgments and charges to juries. He presided at the Tichborne trial at Bar, lasting 188 days, of which his summing-up occupied eighteen.

The greatest public occasion on which Sir Alexander Cockburn acted, outside his usual judicial functions, was that of the "Alabama" arbitration, held at Geneva in 1872, in which he represented the British government, and dissented from the view taken by the majority of the arbitrators, without being able to convince them. He prepared, with Mr C. F. Adams, the representative of the United States, the English translation of the award of the arbitrators, and published his reasons for dissenting in a vigorously worded document which did not meet with universal commendation. He admitted in substance the liability of England for the acts of the "Alabama," but not on the grounds on which the decision of the majority was based, and he held England not liable in respect of the "Florida" and the "Shenandoah."

In personal appearance Sir Alexander Cockburn was of small stature, but great dignity of deportment. He was fond of yachting and of sport, and was engaged in writing a series of articles on the "History of the Chase in the Nineteenth Century" at the time of his death. He was fond, too, of society, and was also throughout his life addicted to frivolities not altogether consistent with advancement in a learned profession, or with the positions of dignity which he successively occupied. At the same time he had a high sense of what was due to and expected from his profession; and his utterance upon the limitations of advocacy, in his speech at the banquet given in the Middle Temple Hall to M. Berryer, the celebrated French advocate, may be called the classical authority on the subject. Lord Brougham, replying for the guests other than Berryer, had spoken of "the first great duty of an advocate to reckon everything subordinate to the interests of his client." The lord chief justice, replying to the toast of "the judges of England," dissented from this sweeping statement, saying, amid loud cheers from a distinguished assembly of lawyers, "The arms which an advocate wields he ought to use as a warrior, not as an assassin. He ought to uphold the interests of his clients per fas, not per nefas. He ought to know how to reconcile the interests of his clients with the eternal interests of truth and justice" (The Times, 9th of November 1864). Sir Alexander Cockburn was never married, and the baronetcy became extinct at his death.

AUTHORITIES - The Times, 22nd of November 1880; Law Journal; Law Times; Solicitors' Journal, 27th of November 1880; Law Magazine, new series, vol. xv. p. 193, 1851; Ashley's Life of Lord Palmerston; Nash's Life of Lord Westbury; "Reminiscences of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge," by Lord Russell of Killowen, in the North American Review, September 1894; The Greville Memoirs; Croker's Correspondence and Diaries; Justin M'Carthy's History of Our Own Times; Serjeant Ballantine's Experiences; Bench and Bar, by Serjeant Robinson; Fairchild's Life of Lord Bramwell; Manson's Builders of Our Law; Burke's Peerage, ed. 1879; Foster's Peerage, 1880.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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