James Mackay, Baron Mackay of Clashfern

James Mackay, Baron Mackay of Clashfern

James Peter Hymers Mackay, Baron Mackay of Clashfern, KT, PC (born 2 July 1927) is a Scottish advocate and former Lord Chancellor (1987–1997).

Born in Edinburgh, the son of a railway signalman, Mackay was educated at George Heriot's School, the University of Edinburgh and Trinity College, Cambridge where he undertook degrees in mathematics and then did postgraduate study in that subject. For a time during the 1950s he taught mathematics at St Andrews University before returning to Edinburgh to read law. He was elected to the Faculty of Advocates in 1955 and was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1965. He was subsequently Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, the leader of the Scots bar.

In 1979, Mackay was appointed Lord Advocate, the senior law officer in Scotland, and was created a life peer as Baron Mackay of Clashfern, of Eddrachillis in the District of Sutherland, taking his territorial designation from his father's birthplace: Clashfern in Sutherland. Although an eminent lawyer in his own right (and leader of the Scots bar), Mackay was not at the time of the Conservative general election victory in 1979 a member of the Conservative Party. Until then, the practice of governments had been to appoint as Lord Advocate a QC member of their own party in Parliament. However, in 1979 the only person eligible on those criteria was the late Nicholas Fairbarn QC, a very colourful character at the Scots bar and in Parliament, and whose appointment as the senior law officer of the Crown in Scotland would probably have attracted considerable disapproving criticism. Lord Emslie, then Lord President of the Court of Session, contacted the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and persuaded her that Fairbairn should not be appointed Lord Advocate, but that Mackay should have that position, with Fairbairn taking the second-ranking position of Solicitor-General for Scotland. Mrs Thatcher accepted that advice, and so Mackay's distinguished career in Parliament began.

One of the outstanding lawyers of the 20th century, Mackay was thought to want to be the third man to be appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary straight from the Bar, without any intervening period of lower judicial office. But it is thought that it was gently explained to him at the time that such a step would not be well-received in English legal circles, and that the cases of Lord Macmillan and Lord Reid (the two men who had made that step) were of another age. In anticipation of the retirement of Lord Fraser of Tullybelton as one of the two Scots Lords of Appeal in Ordinary the following year, Mackay took an appointment as a judge of the Court of Session in 1984, and was promoted to the appellate committee of the House of Lords in 1985 when Fraser stepped down.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher made Mackay Lord Chancellor. (As this happened within hours of the previous Lord Chancellor - Lord Havers - retiring because of ill health, he had to ask for his wife's consent to make sure she could cope with the public attention.) Mackay read the Cabinet's tribute to Thatcher at her last Cabinet meeting on her resignation as prime minister in 1990. Reappointed Lord Chancellor by Thatcher's successor John Major, when the 1997 general election was called Mackay told Major that he would retire at the election. In the event, the Conservatives lost power at that election. By the time of his retirement, Mackay had become one of the longest serving Lord Chancellors. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle by the Queen in 1999.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is also remembered for an incident when he, an elder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, attended the funeral masses of two close Roman Catholic friends. This was considered a grave offence by the Free Presbyterian Church authorities and he was suspended from church office, bringing about a split and the formation of Associated Presbyterian Church in 1989, which supported greater "liberty of conscience".

Lord Mackay of Clashfern was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2005 and 2006. The Scottish Executive announced on 27 April 2007 that the Queen had appointed Lord Mackay of Clashfern to the office of Lord Clerk Register, replacing David Charteris, 12th Earl of Wemyss. [cite web|url=http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2007/04/27102051|title=Lord Clerk Register appointed|publisher=Scottish Executive]

Lord Mackay is also the Editor-in-Chief of Halsbury's Laws of England, the major legal work which states the law of England, first published in 1907. On 15 November 2007, Mackay delivered the centenary address at a special meeting of the staff, editors and contributors of Halsbury's Laws of England, at Middle Temple Hall, London.

At the University of Aberdeen, the main hall in the King's College Conference Centre is named the James Mackay Hall, in honour of him.


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