Judiciary Reviews

‘Eardley Norton — A Biography’ review: The case of a British barrister

For Suresh Balakrishnan, this classic biography of Eardley Norton, a well-known advocate of Madras, is an extension of his highly informative book Famous Judges and Lawyers of Madras, published in 2012 for the 150th anniversary of the Madras High Court. In the monumental volumes under review, Balakrishnan, who practises in the Madras High Court, has not only delved deeper into the life and times of “a barrister and champion of India’s rights and liberties,” but has also traced the Norton family tree and in the process linked the birth of the nation to its legal history. In a lengthy but enlightening introduction, the author details the background of the Norton family and clears some apocryphal information (colonial history is notorious for such accretions) and puts the record straight.

The biography is divided into eight parts in two volumes and has 70 carefully arranged chapters thus making it fairly easy to read in spite of the size and the heavy subject.

Family links

The first part of the book starts with the patriarch, Sir John David, and his untimely death on board Castle Eden. Balakrishnan does not miss even a George Norton, unconnected to the family, but having a lengthy record of service as Advocate General of Madras, and ends with a detailed sketch of John Bruce Norton, father of Eardley Norton, who argued in the privy council even when he was totally blind, and prepares the reader to sit up and read the rest.

With a number of interesting anecdotes at once amusing and revealing, the author takes the reader through the life of young Eardley, his early days in Madras and subsequent education and final qualification as a lawyer in England, a brief stint as a lawyer there and his obviously unwilling departure for Madras to practise law. It was not easy for a young advocate of 27 years in Madras and he even considered joining the army. Counselled by Muthuswami Aiyar, he stayed back in his profession. In 1880 he was appointed as a deputy to the coroner, and later he took charge as the coroner.

After the tragic Park fire during New Year celebrations of 1886, as the coroner, Norton had his hands full during the inquiry and the jury returned the verdict as accidental due to his careful analysis that resulted in the abolition of the post of coroner. In the famous Garstin Dacoity Case, Norton appeared for the defence of the Zamindar of Bodinayakanur who was charged with committing a dacoity on Garstin, a senior member of the board of revenue. The zamindar was acquitted. After the trial, Norton ran into a confrontation with Henry Edward Sullivan, a senior member of the Council who filed a case against him. Norton fought the case and won, and came to be known as the ‘Lion of the Madras Bar.’

The author deals with the national movement and Norton’s attendance at the Madras session of the Congress; his resignation from the Congress in 1895, re-entering political life in 1897 and his work as a member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1899. His legal career is described in detail and volume 2 takes the reader through some thrilling cases fought by him. The two books will be useful to lawyers and legal aspirants as details of many famous cases are highlighted.

Eardley Norton — A Biography; Suresh Balakrishnan, Old Madras Press, ₹1,900.

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