Sheriff J Irvine Smith QC (1926-2016)

Published on: Author: James Chalmers 1 Comment


We were deeply sorry to learn of the death last week of Sheriff J Irvine Smith QC, at the age of 89. Irvine Smith, a Glasgow graduate (first in History, and then Law) was one of Scotland’s leading criminal advocates before being appointed as a Sheriff in 1963, retiring in 1992. In that role, he was perhaps best known for his judgment in the Ibrox damages trial of 1974, a test case on liability for the 1971 Ibrox disaster where 66 members of the crowd at an Old Firm football match died in a crush. Obituaries paying tribute to his career have been published in the Herald and the Buteman.

He also made a considerable contribution to academia and scholarship throughout his life. As an intrant in the Faculty of Advocates, he was supported – as a number of other Glasgow graduates had been – by the award of a Faulds Fellowship. This made it possible for him to undertake the unpaid “devilling” required to qualify as an advocate, while at the same time pursuing research into Scottish legal history, working on a transcription and analysis of the manuscript Practicks (1610-1634) of Sir Thomas Nicolson of Carnock held by the National Library of Scotland.

In his first year at the Bar, he started teaching, describing it as a “stroke of good luck” that this “was the period of the winter evening classes, as television had not yet absorbed the adult’s evenings”. He gave lectures on Old Glasgow in the city’s libraries, and later ones on Scottish history in his home town of Falkirk, sponsored by Glasgow University’s extramural department.

During reforms of the law curriculum in the early 1950s, when David Walker introduced a course in the Scottish Legal System – something which might seem commonplace now, but was a considerable innovation at the time – Irvine Smith was appointed a part-time lecturer, lecturing in the evenings following his practice at the Bar. Following the departure of Campbell Paton to Edinburgh in the late 1950s, he became part-time lecturer in the History of Scots Law. When his appointment as a Sheriff in 1963 made it impossible for him to continue in this paid post, he voluntarily continued to teach in the evenings, unpaid, taking taxis from the court to reach the lecture hall by the start time of 5pm.

In his 2012 autobiography, Law, Life and Laughter: A Personal Verdict, Irvine Smith described this time as “the happiest, busiest and most satisfying years of my working life”. Those of us fortunate enough to have taken these classes still recall them fondly. Sheriff Smith’s learning was transmitted to us with passion and with wit. Legal history was brought alive, peppered with humorous but always kindly reflection on the parallels with contemporary life in the criminal courts of Scotland. His commitment to legal education and to the University of Glasgow went beyond the classroom: each year he hosted a dinner in his home in Larbert for his class, and he readily gave of his time in supporting the students’ law society. Many students over the years also benefited from his help, guidance and wise counsel.

His lecturing continued until 1983, when his move to the Sheriffdom of Greenock, Rothesay and Dunoon, made it impossible to combine the roles.

Throughout his career, Irvine Smith made significant contributions to the history of Scots law, particularly through his work with the Stair Society. He prepared the index for Campbell Paton’s six volume edition of Hume’s Lectures (“[this], I think, makes me one of the few living Scots who have actually read all six volumes”), then contributed several chapters to the Society’s 1958 Introduction to Scottish Legal History (on particular historical periods, and more generally on criminal law), and edited two volumes of the Selected Justiciary Cases 1624-1650. When he stepped down as Vice-President of the Society in 2006, he was made an honorary life member.

Irvine Smith was widely recognised as an entertaining lecturer (and was much in demand as an after-dinner speaker), and his 1998 Stair Society lecture on the 1705 trial of Captain Green for piracy was for many years spoken of in legal history circles with admiration, and regret that the text had never been published. The School was delighted when he agreed to prepare a version of it for inclusion in the Glasgow Tercentenary Essays, published in 2014 to mark the tercentenary of the Regius Chair in Law. In honour of this remarkable lawyer, scholar and colleague, we are pleased to make this freely available here, and hope that it enthralls those who read it as much as those who were present in 1998.

Irvine Smith’s autobiography is available via Amazon, while the Glasgow Tercentenary Essays are available from Avizandum.

One Response to Sheriff J Irvine Smith QC (1926-2016) Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Remember sheriff smith well and unfortunatly ended up in frount of him Rothesay court you could write abook alone just cases on bute where he lived he gave me 30 days and i said i could do that standing on my head he gave me another 30 to get back on my feet and another i said i had adrink problem and his reply your going to a bar but only in name barlinie and another occation i said the cell was over crouwlded he said the time iam finished it will be three to a bed a very funny man and in the end i listened to sheriff smith and 35 years trouble free in the end he was only doing his job sorry to be up in frount of him my condolences to his family sorry about the spelling stephen formerly of Rothesay

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