Lord Lane

Lord Chief Justice criticised for dismissing the appeal of the Birmingham Six

Geoffrey Lane, Lord Chief Justice of England from 1980 until 1992, will be best remembered for his remark in the 1987 hearing by the Court of Appeal into the appeal of the Birmingham Six convicted at Lancaster Crown Court in 1975. Dismissing the appeal, he commented, "The longer this case has gone on the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct." A further appeal by the Six was allowed some four years later and, although the tribunal was careful not to criticise Lane, there were calls for his resignation. Lord Lane was not the only senior judge who made what turned out to be ill-advised comments on the merits of the case. Lord Denning was another. Lane should be better remembered for his 1991 ruling that a husband could be convicted of the rape of his wife, so removing a shameful anachronism from the law.

Geoffrey Dawson Lane was born in 1918, the son of Percy Lane, a Lincolnshire bank manager. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and Law, obtaining a Double First. During the Second World War he served as a Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force, where most of his work was towing gliders, and he received the Air Force Cross in 1943. In 1946, he was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, of which he became a Bencher in 1966.

Lane had a mixed civil and criminal practice and appeared as junior counsel in the trial of James Hanratty convicted of the notorious A6 murder. He was also a member of the tribunal which inquired into the convictions of Timothy Evans and Reginald Christie in the Rillington Place murders. He took silk in 1962 and his judicial career followed the then traditional pattern. He was appointed Deputy Chairman of Bedford Quarter Sessions in 1960 and was the Recorder of Bedford from 1963 until 1966, when he was appointed to the High Court bench, joining the Court of Appeal in 1974.

In 1980, he was appointed Lord Chief Justice in succession to Lord Widgery, whose senility had been covered by his colleagues for the better part of a year. As a result Lane inherited something of an administrative backlog, with which he dealt admirably. From the beginning he showed himself to be a humane and much more liberal judge than many of his predecessors, believing that non-violent offenders should be kept out of prison.

He was really the first of the Lord Chief Justices to set out sentencing guidelines and, two years after his appointment, in the case of Aramah, he set the tariff for sentencing in drug cases which, with updates, has remained the guide for over twenty years. Later he set out a tariff for sentencing in cases of incest.

He was not afraid to make known his views on social policy. During the general election campaign of May 1983, he told the National Association of Prison Visitors: "We must start trying to get back a little way towards what your critics call Victorian morality. If we don't, it will go on getting worse." Perhaps he was not able to adapt to a swiftly changing society in which less and less respect was shown to authority.

Although at the beginning of this appointment he treated with William Whitelaw and later Leon Brittan, this came to an abrupt halt when a report in The Sunday Times wrongly suggested that judges were thwarting the Home Office in its attempt to reduce the prison population. Lane believed this to be a direct leak by the Home Secretary and relations were broken off until 1986. Firmly of the belief that a judge was best staying away from the public gaze, he also believed that solicitors had no place as High Court advocates.

One of Lane's more controversial decisions and one which would almost certainly not be made today came when, in 1987, he halved a 12-month sentence which meant the immediate release of a 46-year-old paediatrician who had a 23-volume collection of explicit and expensive child pornography. Lane thought it "not inappropriate, perhaps, in view of the puerility of this type of behaviour, to compare it to a schoolboy collecting cigarette cards in olden times. . ."

He was anxious that he should be seen as wholly impartial. When, in 1984, he was due to hear a case regarding the use of road blocks by the police to prevent striking miners reaching picket lines, counsel argued that he had made adverse comments regarding picketing in an earlier case. Although he saw no reason to do so, nevertheless he recused himself.

Lane's tenure as Lord Chief Justice could be seen as one in which the old-fashioned, unlistening and harsh tribunal favoured by some of his predecessors was gradually phased out. In general, however, he was keen to uphold convictions, arguing that juries had heard and seen all the evidence. He regarded convictions obtained on perjured evidence as something approaching rough justice.

By the time of his retirement, following a series of high-profile cases in which convictions were quashed, the public had, to an extent, lost confidence in the criminal justice system. After the convictions of the Birmingham Six were finally quashed he came under extreme pressure to resign and when he did so, in 1992, he complained about "orchestrated and ill-informed attacks on the judiciary" but to an extent, he had only himself to blame.

On his retirement he accepted an invitation from the Prison Reform Trust to conduct an independent inquiry into the imposition of a mandatory life sentence - something he considered an anachronism - on a conviction for murder. He had been a member of the Parole Board from 1970 to 1972, serving as Deputy Chairman in his last year.

Lane had a much more unconventional use of language than most judges of his vintage. He liked the 19th-century American slang word "hornswoggle", often used by Leslie Charteris's The Saint and meaning to cheat and deceive. Lane used it for judges who gave meandering and long-winded summings-up which baffled juries.

A thoroughly entertaining after-dinner speaker he was one of a number of senior judicial figures who felt able to let down their wigs at dinners of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association. In the days when political correctness was not all, and at the time when women were first admitted to these gatherings, he raised hackles and laughter alike by telling a story about an elderly, recently married man and a fire-engine.

James Morton

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