Lord Oliver Of Aylmerton

'Spycatcher' appeal judge


Peter Raymond Oliver, judge: born Cambridge 7 March 1921; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1948, Bencher 1973; QC 1965; Kt 1974; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Chancery Division 1974-80; Member, Restrictive Practices Court 1976-80; Chairman, Review Body on Chancery Division of the High Court 1979-81; PC 1980; Lord Justice of Appeal 1980-86; created 1986 Baron Oliver of Aylmerton; a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1986-92; married 1945 Mary Rideal (died 1985; one son, one daughter), 1987 Wendy Jones (*ée Harrison); died 17 October 2007.

The legal action that swirled around publication of Peter Wright's late 1980s book, Spycatcher, arguably did more than anything to rip off the veil of secrecy that had enveloped the British security services from before the Second World War.

The House of Lords originally upheld the ban on the publication of the former MI5 man's memoirs in the UK, but Peter Oliver (as Lord Oliver of Aylmerton) contributed a prescient minority judgment. And his view was ultimately vindicated when in 1988 the book was allowed to hit British bookshops, with the law lords finally agreeing that its publication abroad rendered perverse the British government's continued attempts to argue that the memoirs contained secrets. Three years later, the European Court of Human Rights drove home the point when it ruled that UK ministers had breached the rights of newspaper editors when it prevented them from publishing extracts of the book.

While the Spycatcher case was perhaps Oliver's most high-profile outing on the bench, it was by no means the sum total of his legal career. Considered to be one of the subtlest and most intellectual legal minds of his generation, he was involved in many landmark cases both as a practising Chancery barrister and later as a judge.

Born in Cambridge during the inter-war period, Peter Oliver was educated at the Leys School and then at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where his father, David Oliver, had been a law fellow. After taking a starred first in Law himself, Peter Oliver served in Italy with the 12th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment during the Second World War and was mentioned in dispatches.

After the war, he followed his father into the law, being called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1948, taking silk in 1965 and becoming a Bencher of his Inn in 1973. He was knighted in 1974, the same year he was promoted to the High Court in the Chancery Division.

From 1976 to 1980, he was a member of the Restrictive Practices Court and chairman of the review body of the Chancery Division from 1979 to 1981. He became a Privy Counsellor in 1980, and moved up to the next slot on the judicial ladder, the Appeal Court, in 1980.

In 1982, Oliver was generally considered to be a good tip for the post of Master of the Rolls – one of the top three judicial roles in Britain – when Lord Denning retired. However, the nod went to Sir John Donaldson instead. None the less, Oliver was made a law lord in 1986.

Throughout his time on the bench, Oliver distinguished himself as having a razor-sharp analytical mind, particularly in relation to patent cases. However, in 1981 he did little to endear himself to Londoners, as he was part of an Appeal Court bench that upheld the striking down of the highly popular "fares fair" policy initiated by Ken Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council, which saw bus and Underground fares slashed across the capital. Despite the unpopularity of the ruling, the law lords unanimously upheld the judgment one month later.

Oliver retired in 1992 and later lost his sight as a result of macular degeneration.

Jonathan Ames

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