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Written by:
Kathryn Martin-Chambers
30 Sep 2019

The College is sorry to announce the death of The Rt Hon Lord (Donald) Nicholls of Birkenhead, Honorary Fellow. The following is courtesy of his family.

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead

Donald James Nicholls, Baron Nicholls of Birkenhead, of Stoke d’Abernon, PC

Donald was born on 25 January 1933 in Bebington on the Wirral and, aged 10, won a scholarship to Birkenhead School. After National Service, Donald read Law at Liverpool University (he was the first member of his family to go to University), and then won a state scholarship to Trinity Hall. At the Hall from 1956, his highly distinguished supervisors were Trevor Thomas, Dr T Ellis Lewis and Cecil Turner, and Donald obtained a starred first in both Part II of the Law Tripos and the LLB. Declining the offer of a law fellowship at the Hall, he joined Middle Temple, was called to the Bar in 1958 and joined barristers’ chambers at 13 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn. His pupil master there was Peter Oliver, who later became Lord Oliver of Aylmerton and had himself been at Trinity Hall.

Donald was a tenant at 13 Old Square for some 25 years, practising largely in the courts of equity in the Chancery Division and taking silk in 1974. In 1983, he was appointed a High Court Judge in the Chancery Division and knighted. Amongst a heavy caseload as a Judge of first instance, it fell to him to decide whether to sequester the assets of the National Union of Mineworkers. In 1986, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal and became a Lord Justice of Appeal, whereupon he became one of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council. He was then elected an honorary fellow of the Hall, appointed president of Birkenhead School, and awarded an honorary doctorate in law by Liverpool University. He was also an active member of the Middle Temple, and became a Master of the Bench there in 1981 and ultimately its Treasurer in 1997.

In 1991, Donald was appointed Vice-Chancellor, the head of the Chancery Division, and then from 1994 until 2007 a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. In the latter role, the full breadth and depth of his legal prowess was most publicly on display, giving seminal judgments on matters as varied as torture (the extradition of Senator Pinochet), divorce (White v White) and libel (claim by Mr Reynolds, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, against the Sunday Times). At the core of Donald’s thinking in every case were the words which he chose for his Coat of Arms (and for his autobiography), “Let Equity Prevail”.

Donald met his future wife Jennifer while she was an undergraduate at Girton, and he first invited her out on the steps of the Senate House. Don and Jenny married in 1960. He is survived by her and by their children, John (Trinity Hall 1982-5), Gill, and Christopher (Trinity Hall 1989-92). Donald’s connections with and deep affection for the Hall lasted over 60 years, and he celebrated many happy occasions at the Hall (such as Jenny’s 80th birthday), the most recent being the graduation of his eldest grandson Tom (Trinity Hall 2013-16).

Donald died on 25th September 2019 with his family by his side. Details of a memorial service to celebrate his life will be announced in due course.