Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Collins, Richard Henn

COLLINS, RICHARD HENN, Lord Collins of Kensington (1842–1911), judge, born in Dublin on 1 January 1842, was third son of Stephen Collins, Q.C., of the Irish bar, by his wife Frances, daughter of William Henn, a master-in-chancery. Entering Trinity College, Dublin, in 1860, he was elected scholar in 1861, and passed his final examinations in 1863 with honours in classics and moral science. He left Dublin without graduating, receiving, however, the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1902. From Dublin he migrated in 1863 to Downing College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he was bracketed fourth in the classical tripos of 1865, and the same year was elected to a fellowship at Downing, becoming an honorary fellow in 1883. Having entered as a student at the Middle Temple on 8 May 1862, and after reading in the chambers of John Welch and R. C. Williams, he was called to the bar by that society on 18 Nov. 1867. Collins joined the northern circuit, then still undivided, and it was some little tune before he got into practice; his attainments were not showy, and to the end of his career at the bar he was less successful with juries than men who in all other respects were his inferiors; his strength lay in other directions. Gradually his industry together with his wide and accurate knowledge of the common law brought him fame and work. In 1876 he was chosen, in conjunction with G. Arbuthnot, to edit the seventh edition of 'Smith's Leading Cases' [see Smith, John William], a task which had hitherto been carried on by Mr. Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Keating; he was also jointly responsible for the eighth edition (1879) and the ninth edition (1887) of the same work. To the experience thus acquired he owed the reputation which he enjoyed as a case lawyer both at the bar and on the bench, but he was no mere accumulator and classifier of cases; any that he took in hand had to undergo a careful process of crushing and probing until the essence and principle were extracted. He was made a Q.C. on 27 Oct. 1883, and his success as a leader was never in doubt. His services were in the greatest demand where complicated business transactions were involved and in litigation between rival municipalities or railway companies.

Collins did not possess either in voice or manner the external graces of an advocate, but he had scarcely a rival at the bar in the power of presenting his case or framing his arguments. Propositions of law were developed by him with all the lucidity and exactitude of a legal treatise into which his facts fitted with minute precision. Lord Esher, master of the rolls, then the dominating spirit in the court of appeal, was invariably impressed by his arguments, and the fact materially enhanced Collins's reputation among solicitors. He was regularly employed in the heaviest cases in the court of appeal and in the House of Lords, and he was one of the very few common law counsel who were imported to argue in the chancery courts.

Collins was appointed a judge of the queen's bench division of the high court of justice on 11 April 1891, on the resignation of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen [q. v.], and his exceptional learning and acuteness were at once recognised on the bench. He possessed the gift of combining in his judgments clear arrangement and logical accuracy with an unusual insight into modern commercial methods and ways of business. Owing to the grasp which his practice at the bar had given him of the law affecting traffic and locomotion he was appropriately chosen in 1894 to succeed Sir Alfred Wills as judicial member and chairman of the railway and canal commission. At the same time he showed himself thoroughly at home in the ordinary routine of nisi prius and circuit work. He was an excellent criminal judge, and during an emergency, due to the ill-health of the president, he sat for two or three months in the divorce court. On the retirement of Lord Esher in November 1897 he was appointed to fill the vacancy in the court of appeal and was sworn of the privy council. In 1901 he succeeded Sir Archibald Levin Smith [q. v. Suppl. II] as master of the rolls, and on the death of Horace, Lord Davey [q. v. Suppl. II], in 1907 he was made a lord of appeal, being granted a life peerage under the title of Lord Collins of Kensington. In the court of appeal his judgments were marked by breadth of view and by a courageous logic which never shrank from its legitimate conclusions, and he showed no inclination to enlarge the construction of statutes of which he disapproved, such as the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897 (60 & 61 Vict. c. 37). As a consequence his judgments were not unfrequently reversed by the House of Lords in the numerous cases arising out of that Act, and a growing tendency to undue subtlety and over-refinement brought down upon him more than one rebuff from the same tribunal.

During these years Collins took much external public work upon his shoulders. As master of the rolls he was chairman of the Historical MSS. Commission from 1901 to 1907. He played a leading part in the management of the Patriotic Fund. In 1899 he represented Great Britain on the arbitral tribunal appointed to determine the boundaries between British Guiana and Venezuela. The inquiry which was held at Paris for some weeks during the summer resulted in a unanimous decision in favour of Great Britain. In 1904 he was appointed chairman of a commission consisting of Sir Spencer Walpole [q. v. Suppl. II], Sir John Edge, and himself, which was entrusted with the investigation of the case of Adolf Beck, a Swede resident in London who had been twice (in 1896 and 1904) wrongfully convicted at the central criminal court on charges of defrauding and robbing prostitutes. The report of the commissioners helped to give a final impetus to the passing of the Criminal Appeal Act of 1907 (7 Ed. 7, c. 23).

During his last years in the court of appeal his health had shown signs of failure, and he was a broken man when he was promoted to the House of Lords. He resigned his office as lord of appeal on 7 Oct 1910, being succeeded by the attorney-general, Sir William (afterwards Lord) Robson. He died at Hove on 3 Jan. 1911. In private life Collins was of most unassuming and sympathetic manner, with a strong undercurrent of humour which found vent in after-dinner speeches. When at the bar his contributions in prose and verse to the grand court of the northern circuit won him the honorary title of poet laureate. He maintained his interest in literature and the classics to the end, and was the first president of the Classical Association (1903). Collins took no part in politics. He married in September 1868 Jane, daughter of O. W. Moore, dean of Clogher, who survived him with three sons and two daughters. A portrait in oils by Charles Furse is in the possession of Lady Collins.

[The Times, 4 Jan. 1911; Annual Register, 1904; private information.]

J. B. A.