John Widgery, Baron Widgery

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The Lord Widgery

Lord Widgery BBC.jpg
Lord Chief Justice of England
In office
Nominated byThe Lord Hailsham
Appointed byElizabeth II
Preceded byThe Lord Parker of Weddington
Succeeded byThe Lord Lane
Judge of the High Court of Justice
In office
Appointed byQueen Elizabeth II
Judge of the Court of Appeal
In office
Appointed byQueen Elizabeth II
Personal details
John Pasmore Widgery

(1911-07-24)24 July 1911
South Molton, Devon, England
Died26 July 1981(1981-07-26) (aged 70)
Alma materQueen's College, Taunton
Known forWidgery Tribunal
Civilian awardsKnight Bachelor
Life Peer
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1938-1945
UnitRoyal Engineers (1938-1940)
Royal Artillery (1940-1945)
Battles/warsNormandy landings
Military awardsOfficer of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division)
Croix de Guerre (France)
Order of Leopold (Belgium)
The Passmore family at Grilstone, Bishop's Nympton in 1894. The father is Edmund Passmore, his wife Lydia Jutsum, heiress of Grilstone. Bertha Passmore, front row far right, was Widgery's mother.

John Passmore Widgery, Baron Widgery, Kt, OBE, TD, PC (24 July 1911 – 26 July 1981) was an English judge who served as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 1971 to 1980. He is principally noted for presiding over the Widgery Tribunal on the events of Bloody Sunday.[1]

Early career and war service[edit]

Widgery came from a North Devon family which had been living in South Molton for many generations. An ancestor had been a gaoler and his mother served as a magistrate. He attended Queen's College, Taunton, where he became head prefect.

He was admitted as a solicitor in 1933 after serving as an articled clerk, but instead of going into practice, he joined Gibson and Welldon, a well-known firm of law tutors. He was an effective lecturer in the years leading up to World War II while he was also commissioned into the Royal Engineers (Territorial Army) in 1938, having joined as a sapper. As a searchlight officer, in 1940 he transferred to the Royal Artillery. Widgery participated in the Normandy landings. By the end of the war he had an OBE,[2] the Croix de Guerre (France), and the Order of Leopold (Belgium), and had reached the rank of brigadier. Widgery was an active freemason.[3]


After demobilization Widgery changed to another branch of the legal profession as he was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1946. He gathered a reputation for being a fast talker, and eventually came to specialise in disputes over rating and town planning, where his methodical approach and self-control were useful attributes. In 1958 he was made a Queen's Counsel, the first such award given to a post-war barrister.[4]

Widgery became a High Court judge in 1961, receiving the customary knighthood.[5] As a judge he did not draw attention to himself and his judgments tended not to include any comments which were pithy, memorable or quotable. However, his calmness produced judgments which were generally regarded as fair and humane. One example cited in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was his justification for limiting damages for economic loss in Weller v Foot and Mouth Disease Research Institute, a judgment handed down in 1966.[6] Widgery headed several inquiries during his term.

Appellate courts[edit]

He received promotion to the Court of Appeal in 1968, but had barely got used to his new position when Lord Parker of Waddington (who had been Lord Chief Justice since 1958) announced his retirement. There was no obvious successor and Widgery was the most junior of the possible appointees. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, chose Widgery largely on the basis of his administrative abilities. On 20 April 1971 he was created a life peer taking the title Baron Widgery, of South Molton in the County of Devon.[7]

Widgery Tribunal[edit]

Shortly after taking over, Widgery was handed the politically sensitive job of conducting an inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, where troops from 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment had murdered 13 civil rights marchers, commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday (a 14th person died shortly after Widgery's appointment). Widgery heard testimony from the paratroopers, who claimed they had been shot at, while the marchers insisted that no one from the march was armed. Widgery produced a report, published in April 1972[8] that took the British Army's side. Widgery put the main blame for the deaths on the march organisers for creating a dangerous situation where a confrontation was inevitable. His strongest criticism of the Army was that the "firing bordered on the reckless".[9]

The Widgery Report was accepted by the British government and Northern Ireland's unionists but was immediately denounced by Irish nationalist politicians, and people in the Bogside and Creggan areas were disgusted by his findings. The British Government had acquired some goodwill because of its suspension of the Stormont Parliament, but that was said to have disappeared when Widgery's conclusions were published.[10] The grievance with Widgery's findings lingered and the issue remained live as the Northern Ireland peace process advanced in the 1990s.[6]

In January 1998, on the eve of the 26th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Tony Blair announced a new inquiry, criticising the rushed process in which Widgery failed to take evidence from those wounded and did not personally read eyewitness accounts.[11] The resulting Bloody Sunday Inquiry lasted 12 years before the Saville Report was published on 15 June 2010. It demolished the Widgery report, finding that soldiers lied about their actions and falsely claimed to have been attacked.[12]

Prime Minister David Cameron, on behalf of the United Kingdom, formally apologised for the "unjustified and unjustifiable" events of Bloody Sunday.[13][14] As a result of the Saville report, even observers who are natural supporters of the British Army now regard Widgery as discredited.[15]

Lord Chief Justice[edit]

Widgery ruled in the case R v Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, ex parte Blackburn on the duty of the Crown to prosecute. The case was described as follows:[16] "A and B are alleged to have committed a crime. A is charged with the crime, convicted and sentenced. B is not charged. At the trial of A there is evidence which suggests that B may have committed or been a participant to the crime. Can the prosecution be compelled to prosecute B?" In 1968, the Court of Queen's Bench of Widgery, Melford Stevenson and Daniel Brabin issued judgment that "to prosecute must indisputably be a matter of discretion", which was affirmed by the Court of Appeal.

Widgery also ruled on the Crossman diaries case when the government attempted to suppress the publication on the grounds of confidentiality. He made it clear during the case that he felt Crossman had "broken the rules," but ultimately refused to grant an injunction preventing publication. In criminal cases, Widgery became concerned by an increasing number of cases resting on weak identification evidence. He declared in 1974 that misidentification was "the most serious chink in our armour when we say British justice is the best in the world." In March 1976 Widgery dismissed the first appeal by the Birmingham Six in respect of the Birmingham pub bombings.[17]

His later years in office were marred by persistent ill health and mental decline. In Private Eye[18] it was claimed that "he sits hunched and scowling, squinting into his books from a range of three inches, his wig awry. He keeps up a muttered commentary of bad-tempered and irrelevant questions – 'What d'you say?', 'Speak up', 'Don't shout', 'Whipper-snapper', etc.". He resisted attempts to get him to resign until the last moment, in 1980. For at least 18 months previously he had not been in control of either his administrative work or his legal pronouncements, he would fall asleep in court,[19] and it soon became apparent that he was suffering from dementia. He died two days after his 70th birthday, in 1981.


Coat of arms of John Widgery, Baron Widgery
Rising from a rocky mount a widgeon Proper in the beak a pair of scales Or.
Vert on water in base barry wavy Proper a lymphad Argent and a chief Gules charged with a canon between two millrinds Or.
Dexter an owl guardant and sinister a widgeon Proper.
God My Guide [20]


  1. ^ David McKittrick (16 June 2010). "Saville pins the blame for Bloody Sunday on British soldiers". The Independent. London. Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  2. ^ "No. 37138". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 June 1945. p. 3218.
  3. ^ "Freemasonry's Titanic heyday has probably long gone". The Guardian. 25 November 2015.
  4. ^ "Lord Widgery (obituary)". The Times. London. 28 July 1981. p. 18.
  5. ^ "No. 42285". The London Gazette. 21 February 1961. p. 1359.
  6. ^ a b R. F. V. Heuston, Widgery, John Passmore, Baron Widgery (1911–1981), rev. M.C. Curthoys, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005. Retrieved 19 June 2010. (Subscription site)
  7. ^ "No. 45348". The London Gazette. 22 April 1971. p. 3995.
  8. ^ "Widgery Tribunal Report". Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  9. ^ Penny Hunter Symon (20 April 1972). "Sniper started Derry shootings but Army underestimated hazard, Lord Widgery says". The Times. London. p. 1.
  10. ^ Robert Fisk (20 April 1972). "Serious consequences expected for Whitelaw peace aims". The Times. London. p. 5.
  11. ^ Colin Brown; David McKittrick (30 January 1998). "'Compelling evidence' forces new Bloody Sunday inquiry". The Independent. London. p. 1.
  12. ^ "Bloody Sunday soldiers 'acted like Nazi stormtroopers', says ex-Army commander". Daily Telegraph. London. 16 June 2010.
  13. ^ Mark Devenport, BBC NI Political Editor (15 June 2010). "Bloody Sunday killings 'unjustified and unjustifiable'". BBC News Online. Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  14. ^ Mark Devenport, BBC NI Political Editor (15 June 2010). "response; Saville Report". BBC News Online. Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  15. ^ "Bloody Sunday: key findings of the Saville Report". Daily Telegraph. London. 16 June 2010. The long-awaited Saville report turned the Widgery report on its head by exonerating the victims and delivering a damning account of the conduct of soldiers
  16. ^ University of Western Australia Law Review Editors: "R v Metropolitan Police Commissioner, ex parte Blackburn (failure to prosecute)" (1972) v10 n4 p.411
  17. ^ Miscarriages of Justice; Bob Woffinden (1987).
  18. ^ Issue No. 436 (1 September 1978).
  19. ^ Joshua Rozenberg (4 June 1994). "Unjustifiable -- The Search for Justice". The Economist. London.
  20. ^ Debrett's Peerage. 1973.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
The Lord Parker of Waddington
Lord Chief Justice
1971 – 1980
Succeeded by
The Lord Lane