Sir Derek Oulton has died at the age of eighty-eight
SIR DEREK OULTON (KC 1945) brother of HCNMO (1937), one of the great reforming civil servants of his generation, has died at the age of eighty-eight. Instrumental in reshaping and modernising Britain’s judicial system in the 1970s and 80s, he helped reform what he regarded very much as an old boys’ network, replacing it with a structure in which judges were appointed on a meritocratic basis; measures that set a pattern for legal administration for the late twentieth century and beyond.
Born on 14 October 1927 into an Anglo-Irish family, Derek Oulton was educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford, completing two years’ National Service in the Royal Navy before going up to King’s, where he took a Double First in Law in 1951. Called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1952, he followed his parents to Kenya, where he practised as a solicitor and barrister before being appointed temporary administrative officer during the Mau Mau crisis of 1953. During this period, he was (accidentally) shot on two separate occasions: once, by himself, in the foot, due to the dodgy safety catch on his father’s revolver; and, in a separate incident, in the back by a comrade in arms. The latter experience left him badly wounded and scarred for life.
Returning from Kenya in 1960, Derek’s swift rise through the administrative ranks of the Lord Chancellor’s Office was meteoric in its trajectory.
Between 1961 and 1965 he served as Private Secretary to three Lord Chancellors, Kilmuir, Dilhorne and Gardiner. He was then appointed as Secretary to a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Beeching, where, after a wide-ranging review, he recommended the abolition of the old Assizes and Quarter Sessions, to be replaced by the new Crown Courts, staffed by circuit judges. This reforming of the legal system, resulting in the Courts Act, 1971, was closely overseen by Derek, with his characteristic diligence and charm. During this period, having served as Secretary to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Legal Aid, he published (with Master James Matthews) a text book, Legal Aid and Advice, for which he was awarded a PhD by Cambridge University in 1974. In 1982 he was made Permanent Secretary, a post he held until his retirement from the Lord Chancellor’s Department in 1989.
After the death of his beloved wife Margaret (known as ‘Mossy’), whom he had married in 1955, Derek returned to Cambridge to teach Law at Magdalene College; he was elected a Fellow in 1990, and awarded an Honorary Fellowship on his retirement five years later. This final chapter in a long and distinguished career gave him great solace after the loss of his wife. He is remembered by many for his kindness, hospitality, humour and first-rate teaching; to his students, he was affectionately known as ‘Uncle Sir Derek’.
Derek Oulton was appointed CB in 1979, knighted in 1984, and appointed QC the following year. On his retirement in 1989 he was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Sir Derek died peacefully on 1 August 2016. He is survived by his partner Ann, his three daughters and a son.