Legal trailblazer and ‘giant of a man’

  • Sir James Astwood (File photograph)

    Sir James Astwood (File photograph)

  • Sir James Astwood leads members of the judiciary in a ceremonial procession from the Anglican Cathedral in Hamilton (File photograph)

    Sir James Astwood leads members of the judiciary in a ceremonial procession from the Anglican Cathedral in Hamilton (File photograph)


Sir James Astwood, Bermuda’s trailblazing chief justice from 1977 to 1993 and the first black Bermudian to hold the office, has died, aged 95.

The lawyer, who trained in Canada and London, was a pragmatist who steered Bermuda’s courts to a new standard of efficiency.

Both sides in the House of Assembly paid respects to Sir James last night.

Former premier Michael Dunkley hailed Sir James, who was the longest-serving chief justice of the 20th century, as “a true hero for many Bermudians to look up to”.

Sir James was trained at the University of Toronto and the Inns of Court in London.

He met his wife, Gloria Norton, while in Canada. They married in 1952.

Sir James faced limited opportunities in a segregated 1950s Bermuda and opted for a 17-year legal career in Jamaica, where he became an acting high court judge.

He did not return to Bermuda until 1974. He served two years as senior magistrate, became Solicitor General in 1976 and was made chief justice the next year.

He was knighted in 1982 at Buckingham Palace.

Sir James, the son of a prominent builder in Warwick, credited his parents with the ambition and drive to persevere.

He recalled a happy upbringing on the South Shore, telling The Royal Gazette: “I was a mischievous child and would climb trees along the South Shore and look into longtails’ nests. I played cricket and football and raced cycles.”

He was also set from an early age on a legal career.

He attended the old Paget Glebe School, followed by the Berkeley Institute, and became a “Dockyard Apprentice” during the Second World War at the Dockyard Technical School, where he trained as a shipwright.

Sir James would later ascribe “75 per cent of what I have achieved” to the influence of his wife. They were married for 51 years until her death in 2003. They had three children: Karen, Melanie and David.

Lady Gloria was Cuban-born but of Jamaican heritage, which helped provide an alternative to the island’s racial barriers after he was Called to the Bar.

Sir James recalled in 2003: “Jamaica was, by comparison, a very integrated society, and since my wife was of Jamaican descent, I went there to practise law.”

He said it was “very unlikely” that he would have ended up as chief justice without the experience afforded him there.

When he stepped down, Sir James was credited by colleagues with fine-tuning Bermuda’s judiciary during a tenure that coincided with a surge in the island’s international stature.

Upon his retirement, he told the Gazette: “Keeping and maintaining an efficient judiciary so that confidence will be shown in it is the challenge ahead.

“Investors who look to do business in Bermuda look for stability. An independent judiciary is an asset which has been hard to attain.

“I tried to get a bench, fully representative of the community, which includes blacks and whites.”

Sir James prided himself on detachment, but was famously no-nonsense. He said: “I try to keep fools out of my sight as much as possible.”

The governor of the day, Lord Waddington, led tributes on his retirement, praising Sir James for “restoring confidence in Bermuda’s judicial system”.

Sir James dealt with landmark cases, such as the epic Sea Containers civil hearing of the 1980s — and murder trials including Troy Shorter and Chesterfield Johnson.

Mr Dunkley informed the House of his death earlier yesterday. He recalled Sir James as a man who “made perfect sense and would cut right to the bottom of a problem”.

His passing came one week shy of his 96th birthday.

Scott Pearman, a One Bermuda Alliance MP, said Sir James was “not just a tower of the legal community, he was a tower of Bermuda’s community”.

He explained: “He was a wonderful man, a man of great charm, a very kindly man and Bermuda was very fortunate to have him on the bench.

“He understood the world of international commerce and law, he also understood how Bermuda fitted into that international world.

“He understood the interconnectivity of Bermuda’s economy and the economy of the world.

“Those were very important things for a man of his pedigree and status and position to understand.”

Mr Pearman said that Sir James “broke down barriers” and could have kept “making money” in commercial law but instead became a public servant on the bench.

He added: “Sir James Astwood was a giant of a man. We should all collectively mourn his departure from this island and his departure from this earth.”

David Burt, the Premier, associated himself with Mr Pearman’s comments.

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Published Sep 28, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 28, 2019 at 8:02 am)

Legal trailblazer and ‘giant of a man’

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