Life Peers


Though there have been a number of instances in the past of peerages created for life, the only form in which they exist to-day is provided by what are generally known as the Law Lords.  These are the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who are appointed under the Appellate Jurisdiction Acts to form, with other peers who are qualified by having held high judicial office, the legal element of the House of Lords - that section of it which carries out its functions as the final Court of Appeal in the Kingdom.


Palmer, in his Peerage Law in England, quotes ten cases, from the time of Richard II to that of James I.  There are even later instances, for Charles II and the first two Georges bestowed life peerages on their mistresses.  But no life peerage was bestowed in England on a man after the reign of James I until 1856, when - the intention being to strengthen the legal element in the Lords - Queen Victoria created Sir James Parke, an eminent judge, Lord Wensleydale, for life.


Such authorities as Coke, Selden, Comyns, Doderidge, Blackstone and Cruise, to say nothing of the Redesdale Committee, have accepted the power of the Crown to create life peerages.  But when Lord Wensleydale's patent was presented to the House of Lords it was promptly challenged by Lord Lyndhurst and eventually referred to the Committee for Privileges.  Evidence was produced before the Committee that for 400 years there was not a single instance of a commoner, with a peerage for life, taking his seat in the House.  In the result the Committee reported as their opinion that "neither the said Letters Patent, nor the said Letters Patent with the usual writ of summons issued in pursuance thereof, can entitle the grantee therein named to sit and vote in Parliament" - "and it was by the House resolved and adjudged accordingly".


The Crown - which means, of course, the Government of the day - did not fight the issue which had been raised.  Fresh Letters Patent were issued creating Sir James Parke Lord Wensleydale in the usual terms and he took his seat accordingly.


The immediate problem, that of dealing with the legal element in the House, was also allowed to rest, and it was not until twenty years later that the Appellate Jurisdiction Act was passed, under which the Crown was empowered to appoint by Letters Patent a limited number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary for the purpose of aiding the House of Lords in the hearing and determination of appeals.  It was provided that every Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, unless otherwise entitled to sit as a member of the House of Lords, shall, by virtue and according to the date of his appointment, be entitled during his life to rank as a baron by such style as the Crown may be pleased to appoint, and shall be entitled to a writ of summons to attend and sit and vote in the House of Lords, but "his dignity as a Lord of Parliament shall not descend to his heirs."


One contributor to the justly-famed correspondence columns of The Sunday Times, participating in a discussion on the judicial Bench, expressed the view that etiquette precludes a Law Lord from engaging in political discussions in the House of Lords.  As I find others seem to share that opinion it is perhaps as well to point out that nothing in the Acts governing the appointments of Law Lords restricts their right to sit and vote both in office and after retirement.  If any have restricted themselves to legal business only, that is a matter of personal choice and not of custom or etiquette.  Lord Carson, for instance, engaged in discussion on many themes - and so have many others.


As with other peers, some Law Lords use their family names for their titles, while others adopt territorial designations.  Thus we have Lords Maugham, Atkin, Macmillan, Roche and Greene among the former, and Lords Blanesburgh and Thankerton among the latter.  Their wives are styled Lady and take precedence as baronesses, and their children are entitled to the courtesy style of "the Honourable".


This section was written by Heywood before the Life Peerages Act 1958 came into effect.  With a few notable exceptions (Viscount Whitelaw and Viscount Tonypandy in 1983, the Earl of Stockton in 1984, the Duke of York in 1986 and the Earl of Wessex in 1999) all peerages created since that of Baron Margadale on 1 Jan 1965 have been life peerages in the rank of baron, either created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 or the Life Peerages Act 1958.