Obituary: John Taylor Cameron, Lord Coulsfield (1935-2016)

It is with distinct sadness that Edinburgh Law School notes the death of John T Cameron, Lord Coulsfield, on 28 February after a short illness.

A Fettesian and an MA (Oxon) LLB (Edin), he was called to the bar in 1960 and lectured in public law at the Law School from 1960-1964. During this time he produced at least two significant articles;

“Jus quaesitum tertio: the true meaning of Stair I.x.5”, 1961 Juridical Review 103

"Custom as a source of law in Scotland" (1964) 27 Modern Law Review 306.

After leaving his post at the Law School, he went into full-time practice at the bar in 1964, but kept strong links with the Edinburgh Law Faculty, particularly Bill Wilson and Hector MacQueen. Hector recalls he first got to know John Cameron QC (as he by then was) through conversations in the early 1980s in the University Staff Club's law faculty lunch and coffee circles, which John would join quite often, even after he went on the bench.

John Cameron took Silk in 1973 and on being appointed Senator of the College of Justice in 1987, took the judicial title Lord Coulsfield. He remained in this post until 2002, and was one of the leading judges in the Court of Session during that time. He also was one of the three judges who sat in the Lockerbie bomber trial and always strongly defended that trial's outcome.

From 1997 - 2003, Lord Coulsfield was chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Legal Education. He had the not always easy task of making the heads of the Scottish law schools and representatives of the two professional bodies (the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates) work together in a constructive and sensible fashion. He also engaged with the reconciliation of the worlds of academic and practising law by co-editing with the (also sadly late) Professor Angelo Forte of Aberdeen the journal, Scottish Law & Practice Quarterly, which ran from 1995 to 2003.

The ability to seek and find reconciliation and solutions in contentious matters probably explains his chairmanship of several enquiries with significance for the internal workings of the Scottish legal system - the first on procedure in personal injury actions (1998), the second on duties of disclosure to the accused by criminal prosecutors (2007), and the third on civil justice (2007, reconvened 2009). The last prompted the Gill Review of the Scottish Civil Courts (2011) and led ultimately to the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 now being implemented across the country.

Not content with all this achievement already in so-called retirement, Lord Coulsfield kept his judicial hand in by serving as a Judge of Appeal in the Botswana Court of Appeal 2005-2011. In his first year in post he was the only dissentient in a five-judge court upholding the legality of an executive order by the President of Botswana (Festus Mogae) to expel academic Kenneth Good who, after 17 years in the country, had dared to criticise him and his government in pungent terms. Lord Coulsfield's dissent was based on principles of human rights of free expression and academic freedom. The President was none too happy with him, forgetting such other constitutional principles as the rule of law and judicial independence; but Lord Coulsfield carried on and went back the next year and for several more thereafter. During this time he did much to promote and support ongoing links between Botswana and the Edinburgh Law School.

Hector MacQueen fondly remembers him:
"Together we edited the 12th edition of Gloag & Henderson The Law of Scotland (2007). We engaged in significant modernisation and re-structuring of the text, and enjoyed an excellent working relationship over some three or four years before eventual publication. We used to meet over tea in the magnificent study of his palatial ground floor Moray Place flat to think aloud about it all. The conversations were very enjoyable, but not always focused on the business in hand.

My last meeting with him was at a 2014 reception in the UK Supreme Court, hosted by the President of the Society of Legal Scholars. John, in green dinner jacket, tartan trews and black tie, was headed for a subsequent engagement elsewhere but as full of life and joy as I had ever seen him."

Throughout his life, Lord Coulsfield was a good friend of the law academy and remained a strong supporter of the Law School, specifically supporting opportunities for students from Africa to study at postgraduate level here in Edinburgh. The School is very grateful for the patronage of both himself and his wife, Bridget (née Sloan) who survives him.

Quietly spoken and not given to lengthy speeches or rhetorical flourishes, John Cameron was rather a person who got things done and kept going until they were done. In that, as one only realises fully when looking back at the end of a long career, he was amazingly effective and successful.