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In Memoriam: Norman Marsh QC CBE

From The Times
Lady Hazel Fox CMG QC

Norman Marsh: law reformer

Norman Marsh was more a polymath than a lawyer, a man of culture and vision, possessing a remarkable ability to motivate those in authority to give practical legal effect to his deeply held beliefs in fair trial, free speech and respect for the individual. He played a part in the foundation of two major English legal institutions: thus, with Lord Denning, he achieved in 1958 the merger of two narrowly focused legal bodies to establish the present-day British Institute of International and Comparative Law with its worldwide remit to promote the rule of law in international affairs; and, even more significantly, in 1965, along with the Lord Chancellor then, Gerald Gardiner, he worked for the reform of English law as a founder member of the Law Commission.

Norman Stayner Marsh, born in 1913, was the son of Horace Marsh, a jeweller and watchmaker, and Lucy Marsh, of Bath, Somerset. He was educated at Monkton Combe School, Bath, and read law at Pembroke College, Oxford. He held a Vinerian scholarship and in 1937 took the degree of BCL (bachelor of civil law) with first-class honours. In the same year he was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple and was awarded a Harmsworth scholarship. He became a pupil of Gerald Gardiner and joined the Western Circuit, supplementing an uncertain income by lecturing.

A fluent German speaker, he was recruited at the outset of the war into the Intelligence Corps and until his demobilisation in 1946 he served there and later in the Control Commission for Germany, attaining the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His knowledge of German led to his employment in the interrogation of German PoWs, including a number of generals. When, after the war, the harsh interrogation methods of the British during the Northern Ireland Troubles were exposed in proceedings brought by the Irish Republic in the European Court of Human Rights, Marsh was profoundly shocked, saying that, although the pressure was always intense to get information quickly, in the questioning in which he had been engaged it would have been inconceivable to do anything worse than deprive a prisoner of sleep.

In 1946 he was appointed the Stowell Fellow of Civil Law at University College, Oxford, and served as the estates bursar of that college from 1948 until 1958. He had many eccentricities, a tendency to forget his pupils' names, and was noted for his erratic driving. But he proved a hard-nosed bursar, investing soundly in commercial properties. His interest in the broader importance of the rule of law led him to seek leave of absence from his college to take up, in 1956, a two-year appointment as secretary-general to the International Commission of Jurists at The Hague. This position ideally suited Marsh's talents. Even in his undergraduate days he was an ardent supporter of the League of Nations and later played a prominent part in the United Nations Association. Under his guidance the commission drew attention in its publications to many instances of the oppression of the individual by the State, and he visited numerous countries to further the work of the Commission. This untiring activity reached its climax with a congress of jurists in Delhi in 1959, at which 185 judges and lawyers from 53 countries met to discuss the operation of the rule of law in a free society. Their deliberations were directed by a comprehensive working paper that Marsh had prepared.

In 1958 Marsh returned to Oxford, but its limitations troubled him. He had become acquainted with Lord Denning, who was a strong advocate for the consolidation of two legal societies of which Marsh was a member: the Society of Comparative Legislation founded in 1896 and the Grotius Society founded in 1917. In 1958 their consolidation was achieved by the establishment of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, with Marsh being appointed in 1960 its first director and general editor of the International and Comparative Law Quarterly. During the five years of his directorship Marsh oversaw the merger of the membership and diverse aims of the two predecessor bodies into an institute of much wider range, promoting an interest in and understanding of the rule of law in international affairs and comparative legal systems by means of high-quality research, publications and a programme of meetings and conferences. In 1965 he left the institute to take up an appointment at the Law Commission, but as a member of the council of the institute and member of the editorial board of the International and Comparative Law Quarterly he continued until late in his eighties to take an active part in its direction and expansion. In 1987 the institute published Access to Government-held Information, of which he was editor and part author.

Throughout this period he maintained his association with the International Commission of Jurists and became a member of the Council of Justice, its British section. He was one of the first organisers of Amnesty (later Amnesty International), and a friend of its founder Peter Benenson.

In 1965 Marsh's former pupil- master, who had by then become Lord Chancellor under Harold Wilson's Government, appointed him as one of the first law commissioners, and two years later he took silk. He served as a law commissioner under the chairmanship of Sir Leslie Scarman (later Lord Scarman) with Professor Jim Gower, Andrew Martin, QC, and Neil Lawson, QC, as the other members. Here again he found himself in a congenial pioneering role. Marsh led the commission's team on remedies in administrative law, that produced the recommendations that eventually led to the new procedure for judicial review in the Supreme Court Act 1981. He acted as a commissioner until 1978 and continued to work thereafter in a consultant capacity playing a major role in the preparation of the Commission's recommendations and report on breach of confidence. He also served as a member of the Pearson commission (1973-78) on civil liability and compensation for personal injuries. He was appointed CBE in 1977.

Although at times he could be difficult to work with (because of his refusal to let awkward detail get in the way of a grand design), he was held in great affection by his colleagues. It is difficult to place Marsh as a lawyer. He was certainly not a practitioner, nor an orthodox academic lawyer, and showed a preference for ideas rather than a liking for the niceties of legal drafting. Yet all who knew him were impressed by his vitality, his idealism, his capacity for work, and his ability to discern and direct profitable lines of research which the more prosaic would overlook.

Not content with his regular employment, Marsh believed in filling every possible moment with worthwhile activity. He was one of the founders of the Gilbert Murray Trust, to which he devoted much time in procuring bursaries for promising students. He was also involved in the setting up of the Prisoners of Conscience Fund and was a vice-chair of Age Concern and chair of the Clapham Society.

On a visit to Germany in 1936 he met Christel (née Christinnecke), an apprentice bookseller. They were married in 1939, Christel having left Germany hurriedly after being denounced to the Gestapo for making anti-Nazi comments at her bookshop. She worked as a volunteer for Amnesty from its start in a basement in Mitre Court, Temple. She started the first card index of political prisoners and became particularly responsible for gathering information on prisoners in East Germany. On resigning his college fellowship in 1960 Marsh and his wife moved to London and for 40 years lived in a large Queen Anne house overlooking Clapham Common. There was scarcely a room that was not filled with books, not least Marsh's extensive law library. After his wife's death in 2000 Marsh moved to a flat a short distance away. His tireless partner in his last years was Marlys Deeds, another early supporter of Amnesty. She too was from Germany, having escaped in one of the Kindertransports of Jewish children in 1938.

Marsh is survived by his two daughters and two sons.

Norman Marsh, QC, CBE, law reformer, was born on July 26, 1913. He died on October 15, 2008, aged 95

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