Richard Bethell (Lord Chancellor Westbury)


....manifestly a Bad Judge under

the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Palmerston

Richard Bethell, 1st Baron Westbury PC QC MP (30 June 1800 – 20 July 1873) was a British lawyer, judge and Liberal politician. He served as Lord Chancellor of Great Britain between 1861 and 1865. He was knighted in 1852 and raised to the peerage in 1861. (Source Wikipedia)

Studied at Wadham Colledge, Oxford

Joined Middle Temple as a law student.

Called to the Bar in 1823 by the Middle Temple

Joined a distinguished set of chambers at 9 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn.

As a barrister, “his behaviour began to attract adverse comment from his colleagues. ….his nickname ‘Miss Fanny’ (referring to) his ‘mincing manner and refinement of intonation (and) the stately and elaborate form of speech in which his most trivial sentences were clothed (which) produced the impression of affection…”. (p. 9, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”)

Known for his barristerial work and winning an appeal case [A-G v Brasenose College (1834) 2 C. & F. 295]  in which he was led by Sugden Q.C. (the future Lord Chancellor St. Leonards). Opponents issued an appeal and the appeal was dismissed. Winning for Brasenose College.   (p. 9, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”)

Achieved a dominant and lucrative position at the Chancery Bar.

Standing counsel to Oxford University in 1846.

In 1851 he won a by-election at Aylesbury.

His Parliamentary activities focused on reform of legal procedure, especially Chancery.

In 1852 he retained the seat at a General Election, accepted the post of Solicitor-General, and a Knighthood.

In 1856 he rose to be Attorney-General and “was charged with promoting the, then very controversial, Divorce Bill (which became the Divorce and Matrimonial Cause Act, 1857).  Parts of this important Act remained in force until 1965.”  (p. 10, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”)

In 1859 Bethell hoped to succeed Lord Chancellor Chelmsford but the 79 year old ‘Jock’ Campbell took the position.

Bethell was promised the next vacancy by the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Palmerston known as Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. Two years later following the death of Campbell in the office, Bethell took the position of Lord Chancellor.

In 1861 Bethell became Lord Chancellor and took the title Baron Westbury, a town in Wiltshire.

Lord Grandville described Bethell as “clever but coxcombical”. (p. 10, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”)

Baron Westbury’s fall from grace (p. 16 – 17, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”):

  • appointed his son Slingsby to the vacant House of Lords’ job previously held by a fraudster named Mr Edmunds whose case Westbury investigated and decided upon in 1865;
  • Mr Edmunds held two pension positions: one in the House of Lords and the other in the Patent Office when he was found to have mismanaged to his own advantage a substantial sum of public funds in the Patent Office;
  • it was proposed to that Mr Edmunds be charged for his crime;
  • Mr Edmunds applied to Westbury to be allowed to resign and keep his pension if he repaid the proceeds he stole;
  • It was agreed by Westbury, but Mr Edmunds repaid only less than half of the stolen public funds;
  • Westbury agreed to allow Mr Edmunds to resign from the House of Lords, but failed to inform the committee of the House of Lords of Mr Edmungds fraud in the Patent Office;
  • Westbury used the opportunity to appoint family members to the House of Lords by using fraudulent means;
  • The Press found out and Westbury put forward his resignation but for political reasons the Prime Minister Palmerston (see above) refused to accept it.
  • In a similar case:  Mr Wilde asked Westbury to resign with pension if he could provide medical evidence of ill-health. Westbury agreed and relied on weak medical evidence as also supported by a Mr Cooper (Chief Bankruptcy Registrar).
  • Westbury allowed Mr Wilde to escape the proper consequences of his abuse of office and to resign and retain his pension.
  • In a further case: Westbury replaced Mr Wilde with a barrister called Welch who was found to have lent substantial sums of money to Westbury’s spendthrift eldest son, Richard, and himself a bankrupt!
  • Westbury again put forward his resignation but for political reasons the Prime Minister Palmerston (see above) refused to accept it.
  • In July 1865 a “coup de grace” was administered by an Opposition Front Bench MP who moved a formal vote of censure against Westbury, Lord Chancellor.
  • Prime Minister Palmerston (see above) tried to get the debate on the censure motion adjourned, but the House of Commons refused it. The Prime Minister was obligated to agree to the motion of censure against Westbury.
  • The Prime Minister instead of firing the Lord Chancellor sent the message to him that he accepted his resignation form the office of the Lord Chancellor.
  • Westbury delivered the Great Seal to Queen Victoria in Windsor. On his way he met his adversary, Bishop Wilberforce.

Westbury’s rebirth after being pushed out from the Lord Chancellor’s position by the House of Commons (p. 18, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”):

  • He continued to hear case in the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee.
  • He continued in Parliament to simplify the law by legislative codification.
  • He was a member and later the Chairman of a Royal Commission to consider making “a digest of law” but it ended up with nothing.
  • He was “appointed by a private Act of Parliament to inquire into, and resolve, for a substantial fee, the huge legal and factual problems arising from the dubious insolvency of the European Assurance Society, a precursor of several modern financial scandals.”

“Bethell was…intellectually brilliant and socially abrasive, but strongly ambitious, ruthless, and careless of the feelings of others. His profession downfall was caused, not by personal dishonesty, but by a surprising naivety and misjudgement of other people, and ….his ‘fatuous simplicity’ in failing to suspect, or detect, dishonesty in others, which he would have readily spotted in his forensic or judicial capacity”.

(p. 19, “A Short Book of Bad Judges”)