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Tuesday 25 September 2012

Sir John Vinelott

Sir John Vinelott, who died on May 22 aged 82, was a High Court judge in the Chancery division and a leading authority on company and trust law; he was greatly respected for his cerebral gifts and capacity for painstaking research.

The most prominent case in which Vinelott was involved during his career at the bar was the case of the "Pentonville Five", a group of five dockers' shop stewards who were imprisoned for contempt in July 1972 by order of the Heath government's new Industrial Relations Court under Lord Donaldson.

Their imprisonment sparked a rolling series of stoppages which escalated until there was virtually an unofficial national strike.

Total disaster was averted when Vinelott, representing the Official Solicitor, an obscure public office dating back hundreds of years, went in person to the prison and drew on ancient powers that virtually everyone had forgotten about to order the men's release.

The Labour opposition at the time was vociferous in claiming that the Conservative government was trying to extricate itself from the folly of its own legislation.

Certainly the men's release lowered the temperature in the short term, but it also struck a mortal blow to the credibility of the administration and to its industrial relations strategy.

As a judge, Vinelott was famous both for the quiet voice with which he spoke in court and for the sharpness with which he responded to counsel who asked him to speak up.

But he was never a pompous man. Once, when he slipped and damaged his back, he relocated the court to his own house, where he presided, in pyjamas, from his bed.

He was often accompanied to the High Court by his dog, Captain, a springer spaniel who would snooze beside him when he was on the bench, and, in time off from his courtroom duties, go sniffing around the corridors in the hope of finding scraps of food.

John Evelyn Vincent Vinelott was born on October 15 1923 at Gillingham, Kent, and educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Faversham.

He went up to London University to read English, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war and he enlisted in the Navy, serving as a sub-lieutenant, mainly in the Far East. On shore leave in Colombo, Ceylon, he picked up a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and was immediately fascinated.

At the war's end he switched to Queens' College, Cambridge, to "sit at Wittgenstein's feet" as a philosophy student. He remembered the great man as "incandescent with intellectual passion".

Vinelott became secretary of the Cambridge Moral Science Club, a twice-weekly philosophical discussion group. He regarded his role at these discussions as being to ask the idiotic questions which Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell would then demolish.

Vinelott was present at the celebrated occasion in 1946 when Karl Popper came to deliver a paper on "Are there philosophical problems?" and became embroiled in a row with Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy; by some accounts, the dispute led to the two men battling for supremacy with red hot pokers.

The incident, referred to in Popper's intellectual biography Unended Quest, sparked an acerbic exchange of letters between those who had attended the meeting, which gave conflicting testimonies of exactly what had taken place.

The irony was that the dispute had arisen between people who were expert in theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge).

According to the philosopher Peter Geach, "Wittgenstein picked up the poker and said 'Consider this poker'. He found discussion with Popper futile and put the poker down" before walking out.

But Vinelott supported Popper's account, which had Wittgenstein seizing a poker and challenging Popper to "give an example of a moral rule".

"Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers," Popper replied, whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

Vinelott took a First, and was considering an academic career until he was advised by the philosopher John Wisdom that probably the best he could expect was an academic post somewhere like Uppsala, from which he might be invited back sometime in his forties to work as a lowly lecturer at Cambridge. Why not, Wisdom suggested laconically, try the Chancery bar instead?

An Atkin Scholar, Vinelott was called to the bar by Gray's Inn in 1953. After taking Silk in 1968, he became a bencher in 1974 and served as treasurer of Gray's Inn in 1993.

In the 1980s he pressed for reforms to the administration of the cumbersome administration of the Inn which led to the establishment of an elected management committee.

Vinelott served as chairman of the insolvency rules advisory committee from 1984 to 1993 and of the trust law committee from 1995. He was vice-president of the Selden Society and the author of numerous essays and articles on revenue and administrative law.

He served as a judge in the High Court from 1978 to 1994 and, after his retirement, as a part-time additional judge of the Court of Appeal. He was knighted in 1978.

John Vinelott married, in 1956, Sally Kelly Carter, who survives him with their daughter and two sons.

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