Atkin, James Richard, Baron Atkin 1867-1944, judge, was born at Brisbane, Australia, 28 November 1867, the eldest son of Robert Travers Atkin, of Fernhill, county Cork, who settled in Queensland and became a member of the legislative assembly, by his wife, Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Laurence Ruck, of Newington, Kent. (It is an interesting coincidence that Atkin's ancestors (Atkyn, Atkyns) of four to five hundred years earlier included judges and lawyers.)After his father died Atkin's mother, who was Welsh, went to live in Merionethshire where Atkin was brought up with his mother's family (who were connected with the Darwins since Amy Ruck had married (Sir) Francis Darwin, qv.). In consequence Atkin always regarded himself as a Welshman. He was educated at Christ College, Brecon, and became a demy of Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a considerable games player and just missed being chosen to play tennis against Cambridge. He took a second in both classical moderations (1887) and literae humaniores (1889), undergoing a severe attack of influenza during his final examination. On leaving Oxford he joined Gray's Inn and was called to the bar in 1891. He read as a pupil in the chambers of (Sir) T. E. Scrutton [qv.] who was later to be his colleague in the Court of Appeal, and received there a grounding in the common law from one of its acknowledged masters.
     During his first ten years at the bar, Atkin had little work, but when his opportunity finally came he was quick to seize it. A period of speculation on the London Stock Exchange after the South African war resulted in a flood of litigation. Juniors familiar with the law and practice of the Stock Exchange were few and Atkin began to find himself briefed in these actions, in which the facts were complicated and the law difficult and frequently unsettled. His conduct of these cases was quickly appreciated and the ability and learning which lay behind Atkin's gentle style of advocacy soon came to be recognized. From 1901 onwards his practice grew rapidly and widened; the knowledge of marine insurance which he had acquired in Scrutton's chambers gave him a footing in the Commercial Court and he even appeared in society litigation. His conduct of proceedings in chambers and before the masters of the King's Bench division has been considered a model.
     In 1906 Atkin took silk and thenceforward his practice became more commercial in character although it continued to include common law actions where the issue depended upon difficult questions of law or the unravelling of complicated sets of facts. He appeared rarely in jury actions, his style of advocacy being generally unsuited to that type of work, but he was regularly before the House of Lords and the Privy Council. At that time Lord Macnaghten [qv.] considered that Atkin and S. O. (later Viscount) Buckmaster [qv.] were the most brilliant of those who habitually addressed the House.
     In 1913 Atkin was raised to the bench as a judge of the King's Bench division, was knighted as is customary, and began a long and outstanding period of thirty-one years as a judge. Gentle, firm, patient, learned in the law, dignified, he was an immediate success as a judge of first instance, not only in the Commercial Court (for he was soon placed on the rota of that court) but also, despite his having little or no experience of criminal work at the bar, as a criminal law judge. In 1919 he was appointed a lord justice of appeal, was sworn of the Privy Council, and was instantly successful as an appellate judge. In 1928 he was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary, with a life peerage, and in the appellate work of the House of Lords and the Privy Council had the freedom and scope to apply and develop the principles of the law as he conceived them.
     For Atkin the law was dynamic and although he recognized the necessity for having settled legal rules, he was prepared whenever possible to develop legal principles to provide a remedy when a proven injury had been suffered. His insistence upon the importance of principles together with a lucid style and the ability frequently to coin an apposite phrase made certain the recognition of his considerable influence upon the common law. Atkin made important contributions in many fields of English law, in the law of contract and quasi-contract, in the law of evidence, in criminal law and in commercial law, in constitutional and administrative law and in the interpretation of statutes, particularly the Workmen's Compensation Acts, in company law, and in the law concerning negligence and defamation.
     An indication of Atkin's influence may be seen in the considerable number of his judgements which have become starting-points for further developments. Such was his enunciation of the fundamental rule in the law of negligence in the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson, [1932] A.C. 562, where a lady, who had consumed ginger beer in a café, was awarded damages in negligence against the manufacturers of the beverage on account of the injury which she had suffered through the presence of the decomposed remains of a snail at the bottom of the opaque ginger-beer bottle. In the law of contract he drew attention to the worst features of the doctrine of frustration (in the Fibrosa case, [1943] A.C. 32), and attempted to rationalize the concept of mistake in the formation of contract (in Bell v. Lever Brothers, [1932] A.C. 161). In Fender v. Mildmay, [1938] A.C. 1, where the plaintiff was permitted to bring an action for breach of promise to marry against a defendant who made the promise after obtaining a decree nisi but before obtaining a decree absolute, Atkin reviewed the extent to which public policy should be allowed to exert an influence upon the law.
     One of the most characteristic features of his judicial work was his concern for the individual, and particularly for the underdog. In workmen's compensation cases he earned a reputation for being a judge who would always give a sympathetic hearing to workmen. But probably the most striking instance of his concern for the rights of the individual was his dissent in Liversidge v. Anderson, [1942] A.C. 206. In that case the House of Lords decided that the famous regulation 18B did not enable the court to inquire whether the secretary of state had reasonable grounds for believing a person to be of hostile association when ordering his detention. In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent, Atkin maintained. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace. It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law. In this case I have listened to arguments which might have been addressed acceptably to the Court of King's Bench in the time of Charles I. I protest, even if I do it alone, against a strained construction put on words with the effect of giving an uncontrolled power of imprisonment to the minister.
     Atkin dissented alone, for his colleagues took a different view of the powers which were conferred upon the executive in a national emergency, but it may well be that Atkin's opinion will be regarded as being nearer to the general rule applicable in normal times.
     In addition to his work for the bench, Atkin undertook a considerable amount of public work. During the war of 1914-18 he presided over a number of committees set up to investigate such different topics as aliens, women in industry, munitions, and the termination of the war, and in 1922-3 he presided over the important committee on crime and insanity appointed by the lord chancellor after the Ronald True case. It made a number of valuable proposals and recommended the retention of the INaghten rules. Atkin was deeply interested in legal education and from 1919 to 1934 was chairman of the Council of Legal Education. He did much to bridge the gap between professional and academic lawyers and to improve the status of law teachers. He was a constant advocate of the desirability of teaching the elements of law in upper forms at school on the grounds that to be properly equipped a citizen must know something of his legal system. Atkin was twice treasurer of Gray's Inn and was president of the Medico-Legal Society (1923-7). He sat on the governing body of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, and of other educational institutions.
     He was elected to an honorary fellowship at Magdalen in 1924 and F.Bachelor of Arts in 1938. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford (1931), Cambridge (1936), Reading (1938), and London (1939).
     He married in 1893 Lucy Elizabeth (died 1939), daughter of William Hemmant, at one time acting premier of Queensland. Atkin died at Aberdovey 25 June 1944 and was survived by one son and six daughters. A portrait by (Sir) Oswald Birley is at Gray's Inn.

     Law Quarterly Review, vol. lx, October 1944
     private information.

Contributor: J. B. Butterworth.

Published: 1959