Westbury, Richard Bethell
WESTBURY, RICHARD BETHELL, isx BARON (1800-1873), lord chancellor of Great Britain, was the son of Dr Richard Bethell, and was born at Bradford, Wilts. Taking a high degree at Oxford in 1818, he was elected a fellow of Wadham College. In 1823 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple. On attaining the dignity of queen's counsel in 1840 he rapidly took the foremost place at the Chancery bar and was appointed vicechancellor of the county palatine of Lancaster in 1851. His most important public service was the reform of the then existing mode of legal education, a reform which ensured that students before call to the bar should have at least some acquaintance with the elements of the subject which they were to profess. In 1851 he obtained a seat in the House of Commons, where h'e continued to sit, first as member for Aylesbury, then as member for Wolverhampton, until he was raised to the peerage. Attaching himself to the liberals, he became solicitor-general in 1852 and attorneygeneral in 1856 and again in 1859. On June 26, 1861, on the death of Lord Campbell, he was created lord high chancellor of Great Britain, with the title of Baron Westbury of Westbury, county Wilts. The ambition of his life was to set on foot the compilation of a digest of the whole law, but for various reasons this became impracticable. The conclusion of his tenure of the chancellorship was unfortunately marked by events which, although they did not render personal corruption imputable to him, made it evident that he had acted with some laxity and want of caution. Owing to the reception by parliament of reports of committees nominated to consider the circumstances of certain appointments hi the Leeds Bankruptcy Court, as well as the granting a pension to a Mr Leonard Edmunds, a clerk in the patent office, and a clerk of the parliaments, the lord chancellor felt it incumbent upon him to resign his office, which he accordingly did on the 5th of July 1865, and was succeeded by Lord Cranworth. After his resignation he continued to take part in the judicial sittings of the House of Lords and the privy council until his death. In 1872 he was appointed arbitrator under the European Assurance Society Act 1872, and his judgments in that capacity have been collected and published by Mr F. S. Reilly. As a writer on law he made no mark, and few of his decisions take the highest judicial rank. Perhaps the best known is the judgment delivering the opinion of the judicial committee of the privy council in 1863 against the heretical character of certain extracts from the well-known publication Essays and Reviews. His principal legislative achievements were the passing of the Divorce Act 1857, and of the Land Registry Act 1862 (generally known as Lord Westbury's Act), the latter of which in practice proved a failure. What chiefly distinguished Lord Westbury was the possession of a certain sarcastic humour; and numerous are the stories, authentic and apocryphal, of its exercise. In fact, he and Mr Justice Maule fill a position analogous to that of Sydney Smith, convenient names to whom " good things " may be attributed. Lord Westbury died on the 20th of July 1873, within a day of the death of Bishop Wilberforce, his special antagonist in debate.
See Life of Lord Westbury by T. A. Nash.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)