Richard Acton, who died of cancer aged 69 in early November 2010, was one of a select band of hereditary peers to be made a Labour life peer. He succeeded his father, John, in 1989 and found his metier on the crossbenches in the House of Lords, before joining the Labour party in 1998.
Richard was a superb parliamentarian. His interventions were often humorous, but always to the point. He campaigned for the reform of mental health policy and women’s prisons. He also argued for the abolition of hereditary peers (a bill passed in the Lords in 1999).
Richard was born in Shropshire and by the age of seven had moved with his family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was educated at St George’s college, in Salisbury (now Harare). In 1960, he went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated with a third in history. Richard returned to Rhodesia and campaigned with Dr Ahrn Palley, the only white opposition MP in the Rhodesian parliament, against Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
He then became the youngest director of any British clearing bank at Coutts but, after the death of his first wife he gave up banking and trained for the bar instead. From 1977 to 1981, he practised as a barrister in Peter Rawlinson’s chambers.
He had married Judith Todd in 1974, after campaigning to free her and her father, Garfield Todd, the former prime minister of Rhodesia, from house arrest. He and Judith lived in London and then Zimbabwe, where he became a senior law officer for the civil service. When their marriage ended, in 1985, he returned to London.
Three years later he married Patricia Nassif, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, and moved to that state, where he wrote a series of articles and books relating to its legal history and the autobiographical A Brit Among the Hawkeyes (1998). Richard divided his time between Iowa and London, but managed to achieve an excellent voting record.
Richard charmed everyone and was loved by the loyal staff of the House. He had an irrepressible sense of humour, a shrewd understanding of politics and a firm belief in the need for a strong parliament to scrutinise the actions of governments. He is survived by his wife, Patricia and son, Johnny.
The Guardian, 2 November 2010