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Sir Richard Aston (1716-1778)
Born: 16th January 1716 at Westminster, Middlesex
Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland
D
ied: 1st March 1778

Sir Richard was a younger son of Richard Aston of Wadley House at Littleworth in Faringdon, by Elizabeth, daughter of John Warren of Wantage. His father was the the sixth son of Sir Willoughby Aston bart. of Aston Hall at Aston-by-Sutton in Cheshire, who had inherited Wadley from his cousin, Sir Henry Purefoy bart. Their mothers were two of the daughters and co-heiresses of Sir Henry Willoughby bart. of Risley in Derbyshire and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter and co-heiress of Sir Thomas Knollys of Peterborough House in Fulham (the seventh son of Sir Francis Knollys Senior, the Treasurer of Elizabeth I's Royal Household).

It is not known at what date Richard Aston began practice as a barrister. His name appears with tolerable frequency in the first volume of Sir James Burrow's 'Reports of Cases in the King's Bench' (1756-8), but seldom in connection with cases of first-rate importance. He became king's counsel in 1759 and, in 1761, was made Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland, on the resignation of Sir William Yorke. In this office, he seems to have displayed considerable energy. Discovering that it was the practice of grand juries in that country to find bills of indictment upon the mere perusal of depositions without examining any witnesses, he set himself to reform so scandalous an abuse. He failed, however, to carry his colleagues with him, only two out of nine disapproving of the practice, which remained unaltered until 1816, when a bill making the examination of witnesses obligatory was introduced into the House of Commons by Horner and passed into law. Few English judges have been popular in Ireland, and Aston was not one of the few. Accordingly, on the resignation of Sir Thomas Denison, one of the judges of the King's Bench in England, which happened in 1765, he resigned his Irish post, and was transferred to the English court and knighted.

In 1768, Aston was a member of the court presided over by Lord Mansfield, which unanimously decided that the writ of outlawry issued against Wilkes upon his conviction for publishing two seditious libels in No. 45 of the 'North Briton' and in the 'Essay on Woman,' was bad by reason of two formal defects. Wilkes, who had kept out of the country until the writ was issued, voluntarily surrendered himself to the Sheriff of Middlesex before the execution of it, and then appeared before the court upon a writ of error, claiming to have the writ of outlawry declared invalid upon certain technical grounds. The judges disallowed all the objections, urged by the counsel for Wilkes, but the result of a careful examination of precedents conducted by the junior members of the court (Yates, Aston and Willes) was to show that in the days when the writ of outlawry (capias utlagatum) was in common use "a series of judgments required that after the words 'at my county court' should be added the name of the county, and after the word 'held' should be added 'for the county of ' (naming it)". The writ being faulty in these respects, the court held that it was invalid. A decision based upon a ground so purely technical, overlooked by the counsel for the applicant, and only discovered by the judges after careful research, excited in the minds of those hostile to Wilkes' suspicions of corrupt motives, and a report was circulated to the effect that the judges, or at any rate Willes and Aston, had been bribed by a gift of lottery tickets, that Aston had been seen selling them on and had remarked that he had as good a right to sell his tickets as his brother Willes.

In 1770, on the sudden death of Yorke, which occurred on 20th January, immediately after his acceptance of the office of Lord Chancellor in succession to Lord Camden, the Rockingham administration, being unable to find any lawyer of ability and character to succeed him, determined to put the Great Seal in commission; and Sir Sidney Stafford Smythe of the Exchequer, Sir Richard Aston of the King's Bench and the Hon. Henry Bathurst of the Common Pleas were selected as commissioners. These three judges, having had no experience of chancery business, in the space of a year (1770-1) committed so many blunders that a change was plainly necessary. Accordingly, on 21st January 1771, the three commissioners delivered up the Great Seal, and on the same day it was redelivered to one of them, the Hon. Henry Bathurst. It was by Aston, sitting with Lord Mansfield in the Court of King's Bench at Westminster, that in 1777 sentence of fine and imprisonment was passed upon Horne (afterwards Horne Tooke) for a seditious libel in advertising a subscription in relief "of the widows, orphans and aged parents of our beloved American fellow subjects, who, faithful to the character of Englishmen, and preferring death to slavery, were, for that reason only, inhumanly murdered by the King's troops at or near Lexington and Concord in the province of Massachusetts".

Aston was married twice, first to a Miss Eldred, and then to Rebecca, daughter of Dr. Rowland, a physician from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, and widow of Sir David Williams, Bart., of Rose Hall in Hertfordhire. He is said to have been brusque in his manners. He died in 1778, leaving no issue by either of his wives.

Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1885).

 

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