Revisionist take on a maligned LCJ

Despotism Renewed? Lord Hewart Unburied


Neil Hickman


£24.95, independently published



Lord Hewart, lord chief justice from 1922 to 1940, is best remembered for coining the aphorism ‘not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done’. Otherwise, he is not much remembered at all, which the author, a former district judge, blames squarely on the precipitous decline of Hewart’s reputation following his death. Indeed, Lord Hewart (pictured) was once described as ‘the worst lord chief justice ever’.

In this thoroughly researched and deeply interesting book, Hickman argues that this assessment of Lord Hewart as a judge is largely undeserved. Beyond that, he should be remembered, not least for a relatively brief book, The New Despotism, which Hewart wrote in 1929. 


Hickman poses the question of whether his book is a biography, a historical study, a book about the law, or a book about politics. It is, as he says, all of those things, and in defending his subject’s time on the bench Hickman places Hewart in his proper context. This contextualising effort seeks both to show how Hewart was in many ways a man of his time, but in others far ahead of it, as was evident in a number of his judgments. Despotism Renewed? takes the reader through a number of fascinating political machinations, amusing vignettes and sometimes shocking trials.

Most importantly, placing Hewart in his own time vividly demonstrates his ability to observe the legal and political trends of his day and enables us to consider what it would mean for ours.

In The New Despotism, Hewart argued that parliamentary democracy and the rule of law were being undermined through the accrual of power to the executive and the civil service, at the expense of parliament and the courts. He cited the use of skeleton legislation, judicial ousters, Henry VIII clauses, and giving orders and regulations devised by ministers and their departments the force of law.

The final part of Despotism Renewed? examines those warnings and to what extent Hewart was proved right. It will come as no surprise that Hickman concludes that Hewart’s warnings were more than vindicated.

On the whole, Despotism Renewed? is persuasive. However, in its attempts to contextualise Hewart, the book at times loses sight of the man, concentrating a little too much on his contemporaries and near contemporaries. Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile exhumation of a fascinating man.


Bren Albiston is an associate at Stephenson Harwood LLP, London