John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey

"John Sankey" redirects here. For the Australian heavy metal drummer, see John Sankey (drummer).
The Right Honourable
The Viscount Sankey
Lord Chancellor
In office
7 June 1929  7 June 1935
Monarch George V
Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald
Preceded by The Viscount Hailsham
Succeeded by The Viscount Hailsham
Personal details
Born 26 October 1866 (1866-10-26)
Died 6 February 1948 (1948-02-07) (aged 81)
Nationality British
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Unmarried
Alma mater Jesus College, Oxford

John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey GBE KStJ PC KC (26 October 1866 6 February 1948) was a British lawyer, judge, Labour politician and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, famous for many of his judgments in the House of Lords. He gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man (1940).

Background and education

He was the son of Thomas Sankey, of Moreton, Gloucestershire, by his wife Catalina (née Dewsbury), and was educated at Lancing, Sussex and Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with a second-class BA in Modern History in 1889 and a third-class Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1891. He was called to the Bar, Middle Temple, in 1892.[1][2] In 1909 he was appointed a King's Counsel.[3]

Sankey became a judge of the High Court, King's Bench Division, in 1914. He was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1928.[4] He was raised to the peerage as Baron Sankey, of Moreton in the County of Gloucester, in 1929 [5] on being appointed Lord Chancellor in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government. He was one of the few Labour politicians to follow MacDonald into the National Government in 1931, and served as Lord Chancellor until 1935, when Stanley Baldwin re-entered office.[1] In 1932 he was created Viscount Sankey, of Moreton in the County of Gloucester.[6]

Several of his judgments in the House of Lords have become landmark statements of law. Of particular note are his statements in Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (often referred to as the Persons Case) which dealt with the eligibility of women to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. In his decision, Sankey set out the living tree doctrine of constitutional interpretation that has become a foundation of Canadian constitutional law.

Sankey's judgment in Woolmington v DPP [1935] AC 462 is famous for iterating the duty inherent on the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In pertinent part, his judgment stated:

Throughout the web of the English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen - that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception...

This judgment is usually referred to as the 'golden thread'.

Sankey Declaration

Sankey's name was associated with the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man,[7] the product of the Sankey Committee, which was set up in 1940 by the Daily Herald and the National Peace Council, and which Sankey chaired. The most active member of the committee was H.G. Wells, who prepared the draft that the Declaration was based on. It identified eleven fundamental human rights:

The Sankey Declaration was widely publicised by its sponsors at the time, but has since been largely forgotten, having been overtaken by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sankey played a key role in establishing the legal framework of the newly-disestablished Church in Wales.

Personal life

Sankey never married. He died in February 1948, aged 81, when the barony and viscountcy became extinct.[1] A house at his former school Lancing College is named after him.


  1. 1 2 3 John Sankey, 1st and last Viscount Sankey
  2. Stevens, Robert (2004). "Sankey, John, Viscount Sankey (1866–1948)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2007-03-28.
  3. The London Gazette: no. 28255. p. 4060. 28 May 1909.
  4. The London Gazette: no. 33356. p. 1044. 14 February 1928.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 33508. p. 4118. 21 June 1929.
  6. The London Gazette: no. 33795. p. 703. 2 February 1932.
  7. "A Declaration of the Rights of Man; A charter prepared in 1940, under the Chairmanship of Lord Sankey, and originally drafted for discussion by H. G. Wells.". Retrieved 2012-01-05.
Political offices
Preceded by
The Viscount Hailsham
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
The Viscount Hailsham
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Sankey
1932 1948
Baron Sankey
1929 1948

See also

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