Within the British peerage, a life peer is simply a peer whose title lapses at death. (As opposed to an hereditary peer whose title is passed on after their death to a designated heir.)
Life Peers before 1876
Although commonly thought to be a modern invention, life peers have in fact been created for centuries. The very first life peer was one Guichard d'Angle who was created Earl of Huntingdon for life in 1377, and there are numerous other examples, such as; Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who was made Marquess of Dublin for life in 1385 and also Duke of Ireland for life in 1386 and Margaret of Brotherton who was created Duchess of Norfolk for life in 1397 etc etc.
Although of course the crown felt such creations were a proper exercise of the royal prerogative the practice of creating life peerages fell into disrepute. This was partially due to the tendency of male sovereigns to bestow life peerages on their mistresses, as for example with the case of Ellis Agar who was created Countess of Brandon for life in 1758 by kingGeorge IV. But it was also because the hereditary peers began to consider that the hereditary character of the House of Lords was somehow integral to its constitutional function as it guaranteed the independence of the peers from both the crown and the government of the day.
Now the House of Lords has a judical as well as a legislative function and acts as the final court of appeal in the British judicial system. Since the House of Lords was almost entirely composed of hereditary peers naturally their opinion as to what the peerage should be easily found expression in the law, which by the nineteenth century had began to view the life peerage as somehow 'unconstitutional'.
Ironically it was this very judical function of the House of Lords that gave the Lords the opportunity to demolish the legitimacy of the life peerage. Since the exercise of this judical function fell almost exclusively upon the shoulders of the Lord Chancellor, with occasional assistance from other senior judges or former Lord Chancellors that also happened to be peers, the burden of determining appeals was threatening to overwhelm the Lord Chancellor.
So in 1856 the government of the day decided to provide him with some help by creating a lawyer by the name of James Parker as Baron Wensleydale for life, specifically to assist the Lord Chancellor. Notwithstanding the clear precedent of previous life peerages, the House of Lords refused to accept this creation, declaring that no peer could be appointed without a writ and that such a writ issued without letters patent automatically created an hereditary barony the moment said person took their seat.
By this means the House of Lords effectively abolished life peerages.
The re-invention of Life Peers
At the time the government simply gave in and gave James Parker an hereditary peerage but the eventual result was the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 which enabled the crown to appoint a number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly known as Law Lords). Although initially these Law Lords were only allowed to sit and vote in the House of Lords as long as they held office as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, this restriction was removed in 1887 and they were permitted to retain the dignity of the peerage for life.
The very first creation under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 was one Colin Blackburn who was created the Baron Blackburn of Killearn in 1876, but the numbers of such creations was strictly limited. (There were originally only four created at any one time.)
This remained the case until the Life Peerages Act 1958 which specifically permitted the creation of peerages for life, without limit, and to persons of either sex. Technically speaking the sovereign exercised this prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister; in practice it meant of course, that such creations were in the gift of the Prime Minister. The very first life peer and peeress to take their seats under this act were the Lord Parker of Wassington and Baroness Swanborough.
Since that date the vast majority of new peerage creations have been life peers rather than hereditary peers. And almost without exception, life peers created under the 1958 act have been simply barons. By the April of 1999, there were 478 life peers that had been created under the Life Peerages Act 1958, and a further 27 life peers created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 sitting in the House of Lords. Although they were outnumbered by the 759 hereditary peers, in practice things were more even as many hereditary peers never bothered to turn up and in practice and life peers made up approximately 56% of those that actually attended debates.
The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House; only 92 hereditary peers now remain and that is only a temporary measure until the precise details of how the new 'reformed' House of Lords should be constituted have been agreed. Therefore life peers now form the overwhelming majority of peers in the House.
The 1999 act also created a body called the House of Lords Appointments Commission that makes recommendations to the sovereign on the appointment of non party-political appointments (the so-called crossbench peers) to the House of Lords, although political appointments continue to be based on the reccomendation of the Prime Minister of the day.
- Life Peers prior to the 1958 Act
- Judicial Work of the House
- Life Peers
- Composition of the house
- The House Of Lords
- House of Lords Appointments Commission
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)