Lord Ackner

Down-to-earth law lord whose cases ranged from 'Spycatcher' back to Aberfan and Thalidomide


Desmond James Conrad Ackner, judge: born 18 September 1920; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1945, Bencher 1965; QC 1961; Recorder of Swindon 1962-71; Judge of Courts of Appeal of Jersey and Guernsey 1967-71; Kt 1971; Chairman, General Council of the Bar 1968-70; a Judge of the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division 1971-80; Judge of the Commercial Court 1973-80; Presiding Judge, Western Circuit 1976-79; PC 1980; President, Senate of the Inns of Court and the Bar 1980-82; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1980-86; created 1986 Baron Ackner; a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1986-92; married 1946 Joan Spence (née Evans; one son, one daughter, one adopted stepdaughter); died 21 March 2005.

In an era when a charge of pomposity could be levelled at many senior members of the Bar, Desmond Ackner was one of the most down-to-earth. In the early 1960s taking a solicitor out to lunch was still known as "hugging the attorney" and was regarded as touting and a disciplinary offence. Unbeknown to barristers in theory, approaches for work were made through clerks who sent cases of wine to firms to be courted. Ackner would have none of this, telling a meeting of the Bar Council, "Come on, we all know when we're touting."

He first became known when he acted for the victims of Thalidomide in 1966, and, the following year, in representing the families in the inquiry into the Aberfan coal-tip disaster in South Wales. He became a High Court judge in 1971 and was later appointed to the House of Lords; he was one of the three Law Lords who blocked publication of the book Spycatcher.

The son of Conrad Ackner, a Viennese dentist who had come to England before the First World War, Desmond Ackner was born in 1920 and educated at Highgate School and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read Law. During the Second World War he served first in the Royal Artillery but in 1942, after an injury, transferred into the Admiralty's naval law branch.

He was called to the Bar in 1946, joining Middle Temple and entering civil chambers. His success was almost immediate and within two years his name could be found in the law reports of cases in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal with a very high percentage of success. One of his early triumphs came in 1948 when he persuaded the court that a husband had no absolute right to decide where the parties should live. In more widely reported cases he appeared for a couple whose home was damaged by exploding coalite and for a woman whose mink coat was stolen at the hotel where she was dining.

He took silk in 1961 and two years later successfully appeared in the House of Lords for the former Chief Constable of Brighton who had been acquitted in a criminal trial but then was unfairly dismissed by the Watch Committee. Because Ackner appeared in few, if any, criminal cases of note his name was not well known by the public until he appeared in 1967 for the families of the victims of the Aberfan disaster when a slagheap slide smothered 144 people, mostly young children. At the end of the 76-day hearing he condemned the National Coal Board, alleging "callous indifference, incompetence ignorance and inertia" which amounted to "little short of a public scandal". There was particular criticism of the NCB chairman, Lord Robens, who left uncorrected an inaccurate statement that no one could have known there was a spring deep in the tip.

The year before Ackner had accepted a brief to act for victims of the Thalidomide drug in actions against the manufacturers, being obliged when approached a short while later to decline to act for the manufacturers, Distillers.

In a libel trial in 1967, he appeared for The Spectator, sued by the Paymaster General Lord Wigg in a spin-off from the Christine Keeler case; he later represented Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore libelled by a political rival. He also appeared for Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva in a copyright action over her book 20 Letters to a Friend.

He began his judicial career in the then traditional manner, being appointed Recorder of Swindon in 1962. Five years later he became a Judge of the Courts of Appeal, Jersey and Guernsey. He held both positions until his appointment to the High Court Bench in 1971, where he sat first in the Queen's Bench Division and from 1973 in the Commercial Court. Many judicial appointments have been a favour. In Ackner's case it was on ability alone. In 1976 he became the Presiding Judge of the Western Circuit.

Ackner was regarded as a plain-speaking and practical judge, in 1972 explaining in terms why a jury should acquit a schoolteacher who had broken the jaw of a pupil. The boy had taken half a tablet of LSD and during the morning break continually swore at the teacher before kicking him in the stomach:

Have we really reached the stage in this country when an insolent and bolshie pupil has to be treated with all the courtesies of visiting royalty? . . .

Whatever may be the views of our most advanced, way-out theoreticians, the law does not require a teacher to have the patience of a saint.

There must be many teachers who wish there were more Ackners on today's bench.

He was regarded as a severe sentencer, believing the public should be protected and adopting an attitude which would not wholly fit in well with today's theory:

I belong to the school who think that courts should have particular regard to the effect on victims rather than the pre-natal experiences of offenders.

In 1977 he sentenced a bookseller to a year's imprisonment for selling pornography, saying that he regarded pornography as "highly pernicious to those stunted mentally or physically who might well be stimulated to vicious acts". Nor, he warned in another trial, could criminals who wasted public funds in contesting cases hope for the discount given to "those who recognise their guilt". In 1979 he regretted not being able to sentence two men to terms longer than 20 years for their part in an IRA plot to blow up the QE2, complaining that the Explosives Act 1883 did not cater for dealing with the "modern cult of terrorism".

He was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal and a Privy Councillor in 1980. One of his more headline-catching cases in the Court of Appeal came shortly after when he ruled that the registration of a company, Lindi St Claire (Personal Services) Ltd, in the name of the prostitute Lindi St Claire was against public policy.

That year he issued an injunction preventing the steel unions from picketing private plants. In 1979 he had ruled against the transport unions who were secondary picketing United Biscuits saying that such action did not enhance the lorry drivers' official dispute. But those who thought this showed he would be inclined to rule in favour of the Government were wrong. In 1981 he ruled against the decision by Michael Heseltine to cut rate support grants to six London boroughs, saying the minister had turned a "deaf ear".

He was appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1986 and the next year was one of the three Law Lords who imposed the media ban on Peter Wright's controversial book Spycatcher, even though it could be readily bought abroad. In other high-profile cases he ruled that the broadcasting ban on the IRA and Sinn Fein should be upheld. Importantly, he was a member of the House that ruled that an appeal against the conviction of a husband for the rape of his wife should be dismissed. In a lighter vein he was involved in the decision that held that a 61-year-old man who had to pay to go swimming whilst his wife went in free was the victim of unlawful sex discrimination.

Throughout his life Ackner was a great upholder of the tradition and position of the Bar. In the 1960s he clashed with Lord Goodman, who argued that there should be a united profession, and he was against solicitors' being given further rights of audience. He wanted to retain the two-tier system of silk and juniors, but as far back as 1970 he was urging the Inns of Court to act together to deal with the shortage of chambers, and arguing that there was too much duplication in the work of the Bar Council, the Inns and the Senate.

Ackner retired in 1992 and, once freed from the restrictions of a serving Law Lord, he made it his job to be a thorn in the side not only of the present government, but also the preceding Conservative administration - he continually clashed with Lord Mackay of Clashfern over the Lord Chancellor's plans for legal reform, suggesting that the Government was "hell-bent on the destruction of the Bar".

In October 2005 he was one of a coalition of judges and politicians who suggested that the Government was undermining inalienable rights. He feared that "we are really aping what happened in Nazi Germany". He thought the police had made a case for extending the detention of terror suspects for longer than two weeks but the proposed three months was overblown.

Regarded by some colleagues as perhaps too conservative and traditional in his views on the legal profession, he performed a very valuable service to ensure the availability of justice, countering restrictions on legal aid and increases in court fees. He appeared regularly on the radio and from time to time he contributed to the New Law Journal on topics such as Conditional Fee Agreements, of which he was no great admirer, presenting his copy immaculately and taking a great interest in the proofs sent to him.

Greatly respected and appreciated, despite his increasing immobility he regularly attended the House of Lords and took a very active part in proceedings until a few days before he died. With his death, coupled with the recent one of Lord Brightman, the impact on the House by former Law Lords has been greatly diminished.

Seen as realistic and witty, if at times caustic, he was perhaps regarded as something of a loner. One barrister watching him reach the door before the usher as he left court remarked, "Poor Desmond, he has to open the door himself." His colleague replied, "He's been doing that all his life."

James Morton

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