Hewitt, James (1715–89), 1st Viscount Lifford , lord chancellor of Ireland, was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, eldest of three sons of William Hewitt (1683–1747), mercer and draper (mayor of Coventry, 1744), and his wife Hannah Lewis (d. 1760). After serving articles with a local attorney, Hewitt entered the Middle Temple and was called to the bar in 1742. His rise was swift: by 1755 he was a serjeant and within four more years a king's serjeant – testimony to an ability that first won him recognition on the occasion of his defence of rioters protesting against the calendar change of 1752. MP for Coventry (1761–6), Hewitt, a whig, cut no dash in parliament. His contribution to the commons debate of 1765 on ex officio informations was worthy but scarcely inspired. A vacancy in the court of king's bench occurring in 1766, the post was offered to Hewitt by his friend Lord Camden, the new English lord chancellor. Hewitt hesitated but eventually accepted on the understanding a better prize – the Irish lord chancellorship, soon expected to fall vacant – would be his for the asking. John Bowes (qv), the incumbent Irish chancellor, died in July 1767, and before the year's end the most recently appointed puisne in the English king's bench had been named Irish lord chancellor and thus titular head of the judicial bench in Ireland. Ennoblement followed, Hewitt choosing the title of Baron Lifford of Lifford, Co. Donegal; he was advanced to a viscountcy in 1781.
Lifford's tenure of the Irish chancellorship (1767–89) was the longest of any eighteenth-century officeholder. There was a political dimension to the post as well as a judicial. Lifford presided at sittings of the house of lords, had a seat on the privy council, and offered advice to the Irish executive. He did not give universal satisfaction. The ‘patriot’ element in the Irish parliament were disappointed over his stance on the emergence of the Volunteer movement (1779) and during the regency crisis (1788–9). But nor were Lifford's relations with successive chief governors conspicuously harmonious. As early as 1776 it was claimed of Lifford that he had at all times affected popularity; a mere fortnight after Lifford's death, the then lord lieutenant, the marquis of Buckingham (qv), was even more severe, referring to the chancellor's ‘constant misconduct’ and ‘inefficiency as a political character’ (to W. W. Grenville, 13 May 1789; HMC, Fortescue (Dropmore), i, 466).
Lifford's major distinction is that he was the first holder of judicial office in Ireland whose judgments – even their ipsissima verba – are available in any quantity. It is thus possible to form an impression of the calibre of the intellect of an Irish judge – something which we are previously denied. Several of Lifford's judgments are recorded in the reports by William Ridgeway (qv) of cases heard in the Irish house of lords, following the restoration of the appellate jurisdiction in 1782. A greater number and a more varied selection is to be found in the reports, mainly of Lifford's own judgments in chancery, brought out in 1839, many years after Lifford's death, by James Lyne and based on a contemporaneous record kept by John Wallis – the volume known as Wallis by Lyne. Lifford's qualities of intellect were indeed equal to the tasks confronting him in the Irish chancery. He made it his business to clarify dubious points of practice and procedure. But his contribution to matters of substantive doctrine were no less impressive. In Neale v. Cottingham (1770), a case with a strong constitutional flavour, he refused succour to the creditor of a bankrupt English merchant who had sought to attach in the Dublin tholsel court a debt due the bankrupt in Ireland. In Ex parte Hamilton (1774), he refused the issuance of a commission of review, thus letting stand a decision of Delegates in effect upholding the validity of the deceased Viscount Boyne's marriage while under age to a blacksmith's daughter. In Haire v. Lloyd (1786) Lifford was to endorse an argument presented by himself as Serjeant Hewitt in the 1764 English case of Sullivan v. Stradling: he thus clarified uncertainties on proof in one key aspect of the law on replevin. Lifford's most celebrated decision was that handed down by him in Murray v. Bateman in 1777. Here the chancellor extended the equity that Chief Baron Gilbert in the Irish exchequer had developed earlier in the century so as to enable a lease for lives to be renewed despite the falling-in of the last named life and delay in seeking a renewal. This contentious ruling was reversed on appeal by the British house of lords, but the Irish parliament restored the status quo ante with the adoption by it of the tenantry act, 1779 (19 & 20 Geo. III, c. 30).
Lifford suffered intermittent bouts of ill health from 1779 on, prompting innumerable exchanges between Dublin and London on the choice of successor. Was he to be an equity practitioner or a political ‘fixer’? An Irishman or an Englishman? Despite several appearances at death's door, Lifford was to confound early expectations of his demise. He finally succumbed to a malignant sore throat, dying in Dublin on 28 April 1789 probably at his residence, Leitrim House, in Sackville St. He was buried on 7 May in Christ Church cathedral.
Some time before 1750, he married Mary (d. 1765), daughter of the Ven. Rice Williams, archdeacon of Carmarthen. They had four sons. He married secondly (15 Dec. 1766), at St Giles-in–the-Fields in London, Ambrosia (d. 1807), daughter of the Rev. Charles Bayley, vicar of Navestock, Essex. They had a son and two daughters.
Lifford was reputed to have amassed a considerable fortune, the emoluments of the Irish chancellorship in his time being estimated at £12,000 a year. Among his bequests was the grant of £5 to be spent on the upkeep of the family vault in Warwickshire; any residue was to be distributed among the poor of Cross Cheaping in the same county, in money, bread, and coals.
Portraits of Lifford in his robes as lord chancellor were painted by Wyndham Madden, George Romney, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. A head-and-shoulders pencil drawing of Lifford as a young man was done by Samuel Lover. An engraved portrait also appears in the Hibernian Magazine for 1778. There is a memorial tablet in Christ Church cathedral, Dublin. Yale University library holds a small number of Lifford's letters to Viscount Townshend in 1769 and 1770, dealing mainly with matters of patronage. Notes of cases made by Lifford are extant in the library of King's Inns, Dublin.