Heber Leonidas Hart (31 March 1865 – 4 February 1948) was an English judge and jurist who specialised in commercial law, and in particular the laws concerning banking. His book The Law of Banking (1904), ran to three further editions in 1906, 1914, and 1931. He was appointed Gilbart lecturer in banking at London University in 1922.[1]

Hart was born on 31 March 1865 in Clapham, South London, one of the eight children of Percy Matthew Hart, a company registrar, and his wife, Sarah Ann Stillwell.[a]He was named Heber after Bishop Reginald Heber (1783–1826), author of the hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”.[1] He was privately educated before enrolling in law at the University of London, from where he graduated in 1886 with a first-class degree.[1] In 1887 Hart was called to the bar of the Middle Temple, where he was made a Bencher in 1923 and Treasurer in 1937.[2][b]Benchers are senior practitioners who form a governing body for each of the Inns of Court, responsible for the admission of students, calls to the Bar and the exercise of disciplinary powers over their fellow members of the Inn.[3]

Legal career

From 1920 until 1931 Hart was the British member of the arbitration tribunals established under the post-war treaties with Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The tribunals were tasked with resolving contractual disputes between British litigants and the subjects of former enemy states; their decisions were final, not open to appeal. Hart’s involvement in the tribunals may have cost him advancement to the most senior judicial roles he had seemed destined for, but the experience ignited in him a passion for English law reform, which he expounded towards the end of his life in The Way to Justice: a Primer of Legal Reform, published in 1941. In it he argued for the abolition of trial by jury, characterising juries as:[1]

a fortuitous assemblage of twelve people unacquainted with law or legal procedure, and not improbably including one or more persons of indifferent character or intelligence or unjudicial mind.[1]

Instead he argued that a bench of three judges should become the norm, the principle of innocent until proven guilty should be abolished, and the English legal system’s reliance on precedent should be replaced by a codification of the law, as had happened on the continent. If that were done, he declared, “every volume of law reports … might then be burnt”. He also opposed capital and corporal punishment, in the belief that sentencing should be “neither retaliatory, vindictive nor retributive”.[1]

Political career

Hart stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Party parliamentary candidate for the Isle of Thanet in 1892, Islington South in 1895 and Windsor in 1910.[1]

From 1916 Hart was chairman of the Eighty Club, the purpose of which was to further the Liberal cause in parliament, and from 1918 to 1923 he chaired what became known as the 1920 Club, founded to promote the cause of the Coalition Liberals under David Lloyd George, and to advocate for their merger with the Conservatives to create a national centre party.[1]

Hart was a “prominent opponent” of women’s suffrage,[1] and published polemics against it.[4][5]

Later life and death

Hart remained a bachelor until the age of seventy-six, when on 31 October 1941 he married Mabel Neal, a spinster more than twenty-five years his junior. He died at his Putney home on 4 February 1948 of heart disease and arteriosclerosis, and was cremated at Putney Vale on 7 February; his ashes were interred in the family vault at Putney Vale cemetery two days later.[1]