Open main menu

Richard Wilberforce, Baron Wilberforce

Richard Orme Wilberforce, Baron Wilberforce CMG OBE PC (11 March 1907 – 15 February 2003), was a British judge.

The Right Honourable
The Lord Wilberforce
Lord of Appeal in Ordinary
In office
Personal details
Born11 March 1907
Jullundur, India
Died15 February 2003 (aged 95)
Alma materNew College, Oxford
ProfessionBarrister, Judge


Early life and careerEdit

Born in Jullundur, India, Wilberforce was the son of Samuel Wilberforce, ICS, later a judge of the Lahore High Court, and of Katherine Wilberforce, the daughter of John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich. His great-grandfather was Samuel Wilberforce, sometime Bishop of Oxford and his great-great-grandfather was the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce, a family connexion which had much influence on Wilberforce.

Wilberforce attended Norwich School, Sandroyd School, and Winchester College, where Monty Rendall, the headmaster, convinced him to drop Mathematics, in which he excelled, in favour of Classics. From Winchester he entered New College, Oxford, where he was a scholar, obtaining Firsts in both Classical Moderations (1928) and Literae humaniores (1930). In addition to the Craven, Hertford, and Ireland scholarships in Classics, he also won the Eldon Law Scholarship.

Moving to London, in 1931 or 1932 Wilberforce was called to the bar at the Middle Temple. In 1932, on his third attempt, he was elected a Prize Fellow of All Souls College: the two other successful candidates that year were Isaiah Berlin and Patrick Reilly. Wilberforce remained a fellow of the college until his death. In London, Wilberforce practice at the Chancery bar but, lacking family connections, his earnings were small.

Wartime serviceEdit

Having joined the Army reserves after Munich, at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Wilberforce volunteered for service in the British Army. In 1940 he was aide-de-camp to Major-General Bernard Paget, who led the British expeditionary force during the Norwegian Campaign. He was later posted to the War Office where, as a lieutenant colonel he was put in charge of Army entertainments. In 1944 he was attached to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. In 1945 he drafted the German military surrender which Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed in Berlin on 8 May.

After the German surrender Wilberforce, by then a Brigadier, headed the British legal section of the Allied Control Council. In 1946–7 he returned to London to serve as Under-Secretary at the Control Office for Germany and Austria. For his wartime service, Wilberforce was appointed an OBE and received the American Bronze Star. He retained the rank of honorary brigadier.

While in Berlin, Wilberforce met Yvette Marie Lenoan, a captain in the French Army and the daughter of a judge of the Cour de Cassation posted to Berlin: they married in 1947.

Return to the barEdit

Wilberforce returned to the bar in 1947, upon the abolition of the Control Office for Germany and Austria. His old set of chambers had disappeared, forcing him to find new accommodation. He participated in several Foreign Office cases, including Corfu Channel case and the Nowegian Fisheries case. He was also appointed as the British legal member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. He became a Queen's Counsel in 1954. He was appointed a CMG for services in relation to the Warsaw Convention in 1956.

In the 1950 election, he stood for Kingston upon Hull Central as the Conservative candidate, but lost.

Judicial careerEdit

Wilberforce was appointed to the High Court and assigned to the Chancery Division in 1961, receiving the customary knighthood. In 1964, he was elevated to the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, and was made a life peer as Baron Wilberforce, of the City and County of Kingston-upon-Hull. He is the only England and Wales judge in recent times to have been appointed to the House of Lords straight from the High Court Bench, without serving in the Court of Appeal.

His decisions were known for being reserved and cautious. He served as a Law Lord for 18 years, and heard 465 appeals.

Wilberforce was Chancellor of the University of Hull between 1978 and 1994.

Famous judgmentsEdit


  • with Alan Campbell and Neil Elles, The Law of Restrictive Practices and Monopolies (2nd edn London, Sweet and Maxwell 1966) LCCN 66-70116
  • Law and economics: Being the presidential address of the Rt. Hon. Lord Wilberforce (Holdsworth Club 1966)


External linksEdit