After war service, which he ended as a staff captain, he built up a leading junior practice – regularly taking women pupils – becoming expert in very technical areas such as hire purchase. On the brink of taking silk during the mid-1950s, with the prospect of a high court judgeship beyond, his confidence faltered. A temporary trough at the bar led him to doubt whether his limited powers of advocacy would be able to maintain a young family. He applied for, and obtained, the post of high court queen’s bench master, a sub-judicial official dealing with routine pre-trial work. At the time it was considered a low-grade job for failed barristers, who presided over a round of short procedural hearings often attended by inexperienced court clerks.
The appointment transformed him. His powers of concentration and his ability to rapidly write enormous amounts of material were harnessed to a desire to reform the legal system based on theory as well as application. First came his editorship of major practitioners’ works such as the White Book, Atkin’s Court Forms, Bullen & Leake On Pleadings and Chitty’s Queen’s Bench Forms. In his hands these volumes were thoroughly revised in conjunction with the 1965 rules revision in which he participated.
Jacob was knighted and given honorary silk. He was invested with academic and other honours from institutions all over the world. At the celebrations for his 90th birthday at Gray’s Inn in 1998, attended by luminaries led by Lord Woolf, he made a speech calling for further reforms in civil procedure.
Jacob sat on many government committees concerned with court reform. Of these the most important were those on personal injuries litigation (1968) and on the enforcement of judgment debts (1969), which he largely wrote. The former started the process of moving civil procedure towards a much earlier exchange of information and away from the culture of “trial by ambush”, beloved by so many litigation lawyers. The latter proposed the radical step of the establishment of an enforcement office that would oversee the process of debt recovery, having regard to the judgment debtor’s overall means. To Jacob’s regret, faced with an over-complex and wordy set of proposals, successive governments found little difficulty in shelving the plan,
Next, he laid the foundation of an academic reception for civil procedure. As visiting professor at University College, London, with Professor Ash Wheatcroft, he pioneered a master’s course in the subject. His seminars, for which he lectured until he was nearly 80, became world famous. With his friends, Ben Kaplan of the Harvard Law School and the Italian educator, Mauro Cappelletti, he played a leading role in encouraging international studies in the subject.
He was devoted to, and dependent upon, his wife Rose who died in 1995. He was immensely proud that both his sons had followed him into the law. The elder is a high court judge, the younger a law lecturer.
As senior master and queen’s remembrancer (1975-80) he presided over events such as the trial of the Pyx, which tests the quality of the Mint’s coinage. To his amusement he also found himself involved in the detail of the sale of London Bridge to Arizona.
Jacob was born in Shanghai and educated at the public school for boys in the city, his father having settled there from Iraq as an employee of the Sassoon merchant family. At 18, he emigrated to England where he became a brilliant London University student, gaining the Cecil Peace Prize. He was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1930.
His procedural philosophy, described in his 1986 Hamlyn Lectures, was based on the belief that the parties to civil disputes were best served by a fairly balanced adversary procedure with the court playing a passive, non-interventionist role. Thus he was initially opposed to Lord Woolf’s recent reforms of the civil rules, dominated as they are by notions of court control, but he came to accept the need for radical change on the basis that the judiciary would be able to adequately oversee the new regime. Paradoxically, the Woolf changes were constructed on foundations which Jacob had created or influenced.