Donovan, Terence Norbert, Baron Donovan 1898-1971, lord of appeal in ordinary, was born 13 June 1898 in Walthamstow, Essex, the second son in the family of five children of Timothy Cornelius Donovan, Liberal political agent and private tutor, and his wife, Laura, daughter of James McSheedy, of Cardiff. After Brockley Grammar School, he enlisted at the age of eighteen, being commissioned in the Bedfordshire Regiment. He was at the front in France and Belgium in 1917 and 1918, and was later a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force, as a lieutenant. Upon demobilization, he won first place in an open examination for higher posts in the Civil Service and entered the revenue department in 1920. In his spare time he studied for the bar and was called by the Middle Temple in 1924. Lacking the financial resources and connections to support the early years of practice, he waited until 1932 before resigning his appointment to begin, in chambers at 3 Temple Gardens, what soon developed into a substantial practice in revenue cases. He took silk in 1945.
It was the war and the unemployment which followed it that sparked his active involvement in the Labour Party, the Fabian Society, and the League of Nations Union. In the 1945 general election he was the successful Labour Party candidate for the East Leicester constituency, and in February 1950 he was returned for North East Leicester. He was a good constituency MP, particularly concerned with slum clearance in Leicester, but apart from his work as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party's legal and judicial group, he made relatively little impression as a back-bencher.
His real ambitions were in the legal world. His reticence about expressing those ambitions led to some surprise when he resigned his seat in July 1950 to accept appointment as a judge in the King's Bench division. The foundation had been laid in his work, from 1946, as a JP for Hampshire, chairman of the Winchester county bench, and deputy chairman of the appeals committee of Hampshire quarter-sessions. He was knighted upon his appointment to the High Court and remained there until 1960 when he was promoted to the Court of Appeal and admitted to the Privy Council. In 1963 he was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary. Surprisingly for one whose practice had been almost exclusively at the revenue bar, he was a conscientious and effective trial judge, being selected by the lord chief justice, Lord Parker of Waddington [qv.] to sit on the highly publicized and arduous trial in 1958 of several members of the Brighton police force, including the chief constable, on charges of conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice. As an appeal judge he made no significant contribution to the development of the law, but his judicial colleagues valued his expertise in tax cases, his prodigious memory, and his ability, manifest in his judgements, to express himself accurately and tersely. He was a supporter of a new activist tendency in judicial lawmaking, led by Lord Reid [qv.]. In Donovan's words, the common law is moulded by the judges, and it is still their province to adapt it from time to time, so as to make it serve the interests of those it binds. He usually had a good feeling for the policy of legislation. This was evident in his judgement in the Court of Appeal in the seminal trade union case of Rookes v. Barnard (1962) when he took the view that if a threat to strike in breach of contract constituted unlawful means for the purposes of the tort of conspiracy, a point that no one had thought of before that case, the immunities conferred upon strikers by the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 would be largely illusory and this would encourage lightning strikes without warning. Although the House of Lords subsequently disagreed with his view, it was restored by the amending Trade Disputes Act of 1965.
Despite his lack of experience in industrial relations, the sympathy displayed in that case towards the traditional values of collective bargaining, as well as his political background, made him an acceptable choice as chairman of the important royal commission on trade unions and employers' associations (1965-8). He had previously shown his abilities as a law reformer on the Denning committee on divorce procedure (1946), the Lewis committee on court martial procedure (1946-8), and as chairman of the criminal appeals committee (1964). He drove the royal commission on a very light rein, leaving organization and the programme of research to others. He presided graciously and wittily when evidence was heard, but did not question witnesses closely. At the internal meetings he was still less forceful, allowing his colleagues to debate and develop the themes of the report. He drafted the introduction and chapter xiv (Changes in the Law), but left the rest to a drafting committee without the slightest intervention. When the work was done he appended his own addendum and other supplementary notes and reservations. This was a style different in most respects from other contemporary judicial chairmen of industrial relations inquiries such as Lord Devlin and Lord Pearson [qv.].
His views were, however, decisive on one central issue. Six commissioners proposed that collective agreements should be made legally enforceable, while the remaining six argued that this would be inconsistent with the main argument of the report. Donovan knew that there was strong support for enforcement in the Labour Cabinet. Yet after careful thought, for the reasons set out in his addendum, he came to the view that there was no case for legislative enforcement of collective agreements, contrary to the will of the parties. He continued to voice these views in the subsequent debates on the Labour government's In Place of Strife (1969), and the Conservative government's Industrial Relations Bill (1971). He joined with a majority of the commissioners in proposing that immunity from actions in tort for inducing breaches of contract should be confined to registered trade unions and this was reflected in the Industrial Relations Act of 1971. He saw the differences between Labour and Conservatives as ones of means not ends, but was critical of the 1971 Bill for not doing enough to win worker co-operation. He opposed the permanent intrusion of the High Court in this field. He regarded the essential difference between the report and the Bill as being the priority the report gave to causes not symptoms, in particular the reform of procedures and the formalization of plant bargaining, but he recognized that the Bill reflected some of the commission's thinking, such as the creation of the commission for industrial relations and the extension of the jurisdiction of industrial tribunals, the right for employees not to be unfairly dismissed, and the procedures to deal with disputes over trade union recognition.
Donovan was created a life peer in 1964. In 1970 he became treasurer of the Middle Temple, a strenuous task for a man who had for some years been in ill health. He died of heart failure in London 12 December 1971.
He married on 13 April 1925 Marjorie Florence, daughter of Leah and Charles Murray, a chemist of Winchester. They had two sons and a daughter.
There is a portrait of Donovan at the Middle Temple.
The Times, 13 December 1971
Contributor: B. A. Hepple