Willes, James Shaw (DNB00)

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WILLES, Sir JAMES SHAW (1814–1872), judge, was the son of James Willes, a physician of Cork, by his wife, Elizabeth Aldworth, daughter of John Shaw, mayor of Cork in 1792. He was born at Cork on 13 Feb. 1814, and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he obtained honours in college examinations and graduated B.A. in 1836. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1860. At first he read for the bar in the chambers of Collins, a well-known Irish counsel, but in 1837 he came to London and joined the Inner Temple. He became a pupil of Thomas Chitty [q. v.], and was then persuaded to come to the English bar, and not to the Irish, as he had at first intended. His unsparing industry and lucid mind soon made him learned in foreign as well as in English law. For some time he remained in Chitty's chambers as his salaried assistant, and also obtained good employment as a special pleader. He was called to the bar on 12 June 1840, and became a leading junior in the court of exchequer, where from 1851 he held the post of tubman. Though a member of the home circuit, he rarely practised except in London. Already widely known as a learned and scholarly lawyer, he edited John William Smith's ‘Leading Cases’ with (Sir) Henry Singer Keating [q. v.], the third edition in 1849, and the fourth in 1856; and, young as he was, was selected by Lord Truro to be a member of the commission on common-law procedure in 1850, and took a large share in drafting the Common Law Procedure Act of 1854. He was indeed principally entitled to the credit of the thorough reform in procedure which was thus effected. Subsequently he was a member of the Indian law commission in 1861, and of the English and Irish law commission in 1862.

On the resignation of Sir William Henry Maule [q. v.], Willes succeeded him in the common pleas on 3 July 1855, though he had never become a queen's counsel, and was knighted in August. He was one of the first judges appointed to try election petitions, and laid down the rules of practice afterwards generally followed. Few judgments are more philosophic, more clear, or more learned than his, and they are especially authoritative in cases on mercantile law. On 3 Nov. 1871 he was sworn of the privy council, and it was in contemplation to have made him a member of the judicial committee. His health, however, had suffered from a lifetime of overwork, and, though he lived much retired and only mixed in literary society, he was unable to secure the quiet needed to prevent the gradual approach of nervous breakdown. His duties as a criminal judge added to the strain upon a mind naturally emotional and equally anxious to do justice and show mercy. For years he had suffered from heart disease and gout. He returned in August 1872 from an exceedingly heavy assize at Liverpool to his house, Otterspool, Watford, Hertfordshire, visibly depressed and ill, and on 2 Oct. shot himself. He was buried on 7 Oct. at Brompton cemetery.

In manner Willes was somewhat prim and precise, and he always retained an Irish accent; but, although occasionally peculiar in court, he was most courteous, and was esteemed equally by lawyers and by mercantile men. He married, in 1856, Helen, daughter of Thomas Jennings of Cork, but had no children.

[Times, 4 Oct. 1872; Law Journal, 5 Oct. 1872; Solicitors' Journal, 12 Oct. 1872; Law Mag. 1872, p. 889; Ballantyne's Experiences, ii. 81, and Robinson's Bench and Bar; Cat. Dublin Univ. Graduates; Life of Lord Campbell, ii. 333, 337.]

J. A. H.