Sir Alexander Cockburn, 12th Baronet

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A Judge cannot set himself above the law which he has to administer, or make or mould it to suit the exigencies of a particular occasion.

Sir Alexander Cockburn, 12th Baronet, QC (24 September 1802 – 20 November 1880) was a Scottish lawyer, politician and judge. A notorious womaniser and socialite, as Lord Chief Justice he heard some of the leading causes célèbres of the nineteenth century.


  • When a man is asked if he is an esquire, and he answers that he is an esquire, the general understanding is that he is a person of no profession or occupation.
    • Perrins v. Marine and General Travellers' Ins. Co. (1859), L. T. Rep. (N. S.) Vol. 1, p. 27.
  • Personal injury is a more serious matter than damage to property.
    • Reg. v. Heppinstale (1859), 7 W. R. 178.
  • We do not desire that the unanimity of a jury should be the result of anything but the unanimity of conviction. It is true that a single juryman, or two or three constituting a small minority, may, if their own convictions are not strong and deeply rooted, think themselves justified in giving way to the majority. If is very true, if jurymen have only doubts or weak convictions, they may yield to the stronger and more determined view of their fellows; but I hold it to be of the essence of a juryman's duty, if he has a firm and deeply rooted conviction, either in the affirmative or the negative of the issue he has to try, not to give up that conviction, although the majority may be against him, from any desire to purchase his freedom from confinement or constraint, or the various other inconveniences to which jurors are subject.
    • Winsor v. The Queen (1866), L. R. 1 Q. B. Ca. 305.
  • It is true, as Mr. Folkard put to us, as the Judges of old felt, there are instances in which discretionary power might be grievously abused, and was abused in times such as I trust this country will never see again. At the same time, men are open to the infirmities which unfortunately attach to human nature. There may be dishonest and corrupt Judges among us, though I trust to God that will never happen. I agree you are to frame your rules so as to keep the administration of justice as far as you can beyond the possibility of corruption. On the other hand, if a rule is essential for the convenient administration of justice, you must trust to the honesty of those to whom you commit that most important department of the State. You must trust to the means you have of punishing corruption and dishonesty if you find it operating on the minds of those judicial officers.
    • Reg. v. Charlotte Winsor (1866), 10 Cox. C. C. 313.
  • I readily admit that the law which requires presumption or custom to be carried back for a period of nearly 700 years, is a bad and mischievous law, and one which is discreditable to us as a civilised and enlightened people, but such is the law; and while it so continues, I consider myself, in administering it, as bound to administer it as I find it; nor do I feel myself warranted in undermining or frittering it away by subtle fictions or artificial presumptions inconsistent with truth and fact.
    • Bryant v. Foot (1867), 15 W. R. 425; S. C. L. R. 2 Q. B. Ca. 179.
  • I think the old, sound, and honest maxim that "you shall not do evil that good may come," is applicable in law as well as in morals.
    • Reg. v. Hicklin and another (1868), 11 Cox, C. C. 27; S. C. 3 L. R. Q. B. 372; reported in Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904) by James William Norton-Kyshe, p. 92.
  • Whatever disadvantages attach to a system of unwritten law, and of these we are fully sensible, it has at least this advantage, that its elasticity enables those who administer it to adapt it to the varying conditions of society, and to the requirements and habits of the age in which we live, so as to avoid the inconsistencies and injustice which arise when the law is no longer in harmony with the wants and usages and interests of the generation to which it is immediately applied.
    • Wason v. Walter (1868), L. R. 4 Q. B. 93.
  • Writers on international law . . . cannot make the law … it must have received the assent of the nations who are to be bound by it. This assent may be express … or may be implied from established usage.
    • The Queen v. Keyn; "The Franconia" (1876), 2 L. R. Ex. D. 202.
  • A Judge cannot set himself above the law which he has to administer, or make or mould it to suit the exigencies of a particular occasion.
    • Martin v. Mackonochie (1878), L. R. 3 Q. B. 775.
  • In a criminal proceeding the question is not alone whether substantial justice has been done, but whether justice has been done according to law. All proceedings in poenam are, it need scarcely be observed, strictissimi juris; nor should it be forgotten that the formalities of law, though here and there they may lead to the escape of an offender, are intended on the whole to insure the safe administration of justice and the protection of innocence, and must be observed. A party accused has the right to insist on them as matter of right, of which he cannot be deprived against his will; and the Judge must see that they are followed.
    • Martin v. Mackonochie (1878), L. R. 3 Q. B. 775.
  • Although the decisions of the American Courts are of course not binding on us, yet the sound and enlightened views of American lawyers in the administration and development of the law—a law, except so far as altered by statutory enactment, derived from a common source with our own—entitle their decisions to the utmost respect and confidence on our part.
    • Scaramanga v. Stamp (1880), L. R. 5 Com. PI. Div. 303.
  • The impulsive desire to save human life when in peril is one of the most beneficial instincts of humanity, and is nowhere more salutary in its results than in bringing help to those who, exposed to destruction from the fury of winds and waves, would perish if left without assistance.
    • Scaramanga v. Stamp (1880), L. R. 5 Com. PI. Div. 304.


  • A man might as well play for nothing as work for nothing.
    • In an obituary, Canada Law Journal, January 1, 1881, p. 11. According to the journal: "[Cockburn] subsequently acquired a large practice in London in railway and election cases. Although he did his best for his clients, he was careful that they should do their duty by him, and the story is told that on one occasion, when an election committee met, Mr. Cockburn, the counsel for one of the parties, was absent because his fee had not accompanied the brief and the only message left was that he had gone to the Derby, with the remark that 'A man might as well play for nothing as work for nothing'".