Edward Law, 1st Baron Ellenborough, PC, KC (16 November 1750 – 13 December 1818) was an English judge. After serving as a member of parliament and Attorney General, he became Lord Chief Justice.
Law was born at Great Salkeld, in Cumberland, of which place his father, Edmund Law (1703–1787), afterwards Bishop of Carlisle, was at the time rector.
Educated at the Charterhouse and at Peterhouse, Cambridge, he passed as third wrangler, and was soon afterwards elected to a fellowship at Trinity.
In spite of his father’s strong wish that he should take orders, he chose the legal profession, and on quitting the university was entered at Lincoln’s Inn.
After spending five years as a special pleader under the bar, he was called to the bar in 1780. He chose the northern circuit, and in a very short time obtained a lucrative practice and a high reputation.
In 1787 he was appointed principal counsel for Warren Hastings in the celebrated impeachment trial before the House of Lords, and the ability with which he conducted the defence was universally recognised.
He had begun his political career as a Whig, but, like many others, he saw in the French Revolution a reason for changing sides, and became a supporter of Pitt. On the formation of the Addington ministry in 1801, he was appointed Attorney General and shortly afterwards was returned to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Newtown in the Isle of Wight.
He was knighted in the same year.
In 1802 he succeeded Lord Kenyon as chief justice of the king’s bench. On being raised to the bench he was created Baron Ellenborough, of Ellenborough, in the County in Cumberland, taken from the village where his maternal ancestors had long held a small patrimony.
In 1803, he introduced a bill to Parliament which went onto become the Malicious Shooting or Stabbing Act 1803 (often referred to as Lord Ellenborough’s Act) which clarified the law on abortion in England and Ireland.
In 1806, on the formation of Lord Grenville’s ministry “of all the talents,” Lord Ellenborough declined the offer of the office of Lord Chancellor, but accepted a seat in the cabinet. His doing so while he retained the chief justiceship was much criticised at the time, and, though not without precedent, was open to such obvious objections on constitutional grounds that the experiment was never repeated.
As a judge he had grave faults, though his decisions displayed profound legal knowledge, and in mercantile law especially were reckoned of high authority.
He was harsh and overbearing to counsel, and in the political trials which were so frequent in his time, such as that of Lord Cochrane for Stock Exchange fraud in 1814, showed an unmistakable bias against the accused.
In the trial of William Hone for blasphemy in 1817, Ellenborough directed the jury to find a verdict of guilty, and their acquittal of the prisoner is generally said to have hastened his death.
On the other hand, his humane judgment in R. v. Inhabitants of Eastbourne that destitute refugees in England have a fundamental human right to be given sufficient means to enable them to live, has been much praised.
In the field of copyright, his judgment in Cary v Kearsley that ” a man may fairly adopt part of the work of another for the promotion of science…..one must not put manacles on science” was extremely influential in developing the doctrine of fair use. He resigned his judicial office in November 1818, and died shortly after.
Lord Ellenborough married, on 17 October 1789, Ann (1769–1843), the daughter of George Phillips Towry of Foliejon Park at Winkfield in Berkshire and his wife, Elizabeth. They had five sons and five daughters who survived infancy.
He was succeeded as second baron by his eldest son, Edward, afterwards earl of Ellenborough; another son was Charles Law (1792–1850), recorder of London and Member of Parliament for Cambridge University from 1835 until his death in August 1850.
Three of Ellenborough’s brothers attained some degree of fame. These were John Law (1745–1810), bishop of Elphin; Thomas Law (1759–1834), who settled in the United States in 1793, and married, as his second wife, Eliza Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington; and George Henry Law (1761–1845), bishop of Chester and of Bath and Wells.
The connection of the Law family with the English Church was kept up by George Henry’s sons, three of whom took orders. Two of these were Henry Law (1797–1884), dean of Gloucester, and James Thomas Law (1790–1876), chancellor of the diocese of Lichfield.