Lord Bridge of Harwich: Judge who presided over the trial of the Birmingham Six

Nigel Cyprian Bridge, judge: born 26 February 1917; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1947, Bencher 1964, Reader 1985, Treasurer 1986; Junior Counsel to the Treasury (Common Law) 1964-68; Kt 1968; a Judge of the High Court, Queen's Bench Division 1968-75; Presiding Judge, Western Circuit 1972-74; PC 1975; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1975-80; member, Security Commission 1977-85, chairman 1982-85; created 1980 Baron Bridge of Harwich; married 1944 Margaret Swinbank (died 2006; one son, two daughters); died London 20 November 2007

A perception exists among many segments of the media and the public that senior judges are detached from common experience and oblivious to the daily routine of the general population. It is a school of thought that relies on high-profile, bemused judicial queries of the "Who is Gazza?" and "What is a lunchbox?" variety, and whether that perception is broadly accurate or not, it certainly could not be applied to Nigel Bridge.

A man of wide interests, considerable intelligence and quick and acerbic wit, Bridge was a linguist and former newspaper reporter who wrote a novel (unpublished) before the age of 30, and then went on to get a mathematics degree from the Open University at the age of 86, following eight years of study. In between, he had a highly respected career at the Bar, ultimately becoming an influential – if at times controversial and combative – judge as he worked his way up the ladder to the law lords.

Although his overall career was impressive, there is still no escaping one landmark case in Bridge's time on the bench – the trial of the Birmingham Six in the summer of 1975. The bombings in Birmingham in November 1974 brought to a crescendo a series of alleged IRA attacks and arrests over the previous 12 months. In December 1973, the Maguire Seven had been arrested and charged with making explosives. Then, in October 1974, bombs killed five and injured 65 in two pubs in Guildford. So when IRA blasts killed another 21 people and injured 182 in two more pubs in Birmingham, the mood across Britain was one of fear and panic that piled pressure on the police to make quick arrests and get comprehensive convictions.

And convictions they did get, but in circumstances that in retrospect did no favours to the British criminal justice system or to Bridge himself. The judge faced considerable criticism, both immediately following the convictions (the press lambasted him for not recommending minimum prison terms for the six) and following the ultimate ruling 16 years later that the convictions were unsafe (for, some said, adopting a pro-prosecution stance in his summing up to the jury at the original trial).

Indeed, the reality is that Bridge did direct the jury strongly that, in his view, the defendants' assertions that the police had beaten confessions out of them were not credible. Many years later, after the convictions were thrown out, Bridge expressed regret at the miscarriage of justice, while always batting away any suggestion that he bore an element of personal responsibility.

Ironically, Nigel Bridge had never wanted to be a criminal law judge (his initial legal inclinations lay more with the civil side), even though his first brush with advocacy suggested he was perfectly well suited to that discipline. Born in 1917 to a naval officer father (whom he never met) and a mother from a cotton manufacturing family in Lancashire, Bridge gained a scholarship to Marlborough College. But a free and at times pugnacious spirit meant that he quickly grew frustrated with school. Bailing out of Marlborough, he headed for Europe and became fluent in French and German, before returning to do a stint in provincial newspapers.

A year after the beginning of the Second World War, he was conscripted into the Army and eventually took a commission in the King's Royal Rifle Corps. He was married in 1944 and demobbed two years later. But it was his army career that triggered an interest in advocacy, as almost by chance he built a reputation as a tenacious and successful defending officer in courts martial cases for desertion.

After the war, Bridge was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1947 (he was first in his class) and initially practised as a personal injury and local government barrister. His sharp advocacy skills quickly built him a solid reputation and by the mid-1960s he had become Junior Counsel to the Treasury. He then moved to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court in 1968 and the Appeal Court in 1975. Five years after that, he was promoted to the law lords, a huge achievement in an environment that normally excluded those without university degrees.

He was appointed to the Security Commission in 1982, where he was again involved in several high-profile and controversial decisions. But it was the Spycatcher injunction and appeals by Greenham Common protesters that rounded out his career on the bench.

In the former, he and Lord Oliver of Aylmerton wrote the minority dissenting judgment arguing against the granting of the injunction preventing publication in the UK. At the time, their view won the backing of the renowned judge and former Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, who wrote in The Independent: "I find the reasoning of . . . Lord Bridge and Lord Oliver more convincing than that of the majority. Each emphasised the fact that the book was freely available in the United States and even here, and that it was ridiculous now to ban it here." In that dissenting judgement, Bridge warned the government that it would be humiliated by the European Court of Human Rights. And ultimately it was.

Regarding the Greenham protesters, Bridge and his law lord colleagues won their hearts by ruling that local by-laws had been too widely interpreted and many of the protesters' convictions were ultimately thrown out.

His thirst for learning and interest in subjects outside the law lasted well into later life. On completing his degree in maths four years ago, Bridge reasoned: "I had a mathematician daughter and I'd not done any maths since I was 14, so when I retired I thought I ought to keep my mind working on something."

Jonathan Ames

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