Lord Scarman

Judge who led the Brixton riots inquiry

"He reminds me of my Jamaican grandmother," said Lloyd Leon, chairman of the Brixton Dominoes Club, of Lord Scarman shortly after he had visited Brixton, in south London, touring the area in the aftermath of the riots of 1981. Leon then explained what was, on the face of it, a curious remark, adding, "She used to say you cannot buy respect, you have to earn it. And he has."

Leslie George Scarman, judge: born London 29 July 1911; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1936; OBE 1944; QC 1957; Kt 1961; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, later Family Division 1961-73; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1973-77; PC 1973; created 1977 Baron Scarman; Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1977-86; Chancellor, Warwick University 1977-89; married 1947 Ruth Wright (one adopted son); died Westgate on Sea, Kent 8 December 2004.

"He reminds me of my Jamaican grandmother," said Lloyd Leon, chairman of the Brixton Dominoes Club, of Lord Scarman shortly after he had visited Brixton, in south London, touring the area in the aftermath of the riots of 1981. Leon then explained what was, on the face of it, a curious remark, adding, "She used to say you cannot buy respect, you have to earn it. And he has."

Leslie Scarman became one of the best-known judges in Britain, but he will be recalled with most affection and admiration by the public as chairman of four commissions into social and public disorder: Northern Ireland in 1969, the 1974 Red Lion Square riot, the 1977 Grunwick dispute and the Brixton riots. Three days of disturbances in April 1981 began in Brixton and spread to cities including Liverpool, Bristol and Leeds. Much of the anger that sparked the trouble focused on police mistreatment of minorities. Scarman concluded that, while most police were not racist, there were some "rotten apples" on the force.

He was born in Streatham, a stone's throw from the district with which he would be most associated, in 1911, the son of George Scarman, a Lloyd's underwriter, and his wife Ida, a Scotswoman whom Leslie Scarman later described as "fierce and lovely" and who clearly had a considerable influence on him. He would later say, replying to criticism of his apparent conservatism, that his desire for security came from her.

He was educated at Radley College and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he took a First in Modern Greats in 1930 and another First in Lit Hum two years later. When he was at school he ran a mock election for Lloyd George. "I was a schoolboy liberal. Maybe I still am," he said in July 1991.

In 1934 he was a Harmsworth Law Scholar, joining the Middle Temple on his admission to the Bar in 1936. He had decided as a teenager to become a lawyer because "I wanted to act as an advocate for people under threat." Some were not wholly convinced that during his years at the Bar and as a judge he always lived up to his early thoughts.

During the Second World War, Scarman served in the Royal Air Force, something about which he was noticeably reticent. He would, however, say, "Like all my generation, when I came back in 1946 I was a different creature."

His practice was like few others. He was prepared to undertake a wide variety of civil litigation from aviation to ecclesiastical law and his clients were eclectic, ranging from Communists to Fascists (and including Sir Oswald Mosley), all of whom he treated with apparent equal sympathy.

He took silk in 1957 and four years later was appointed a judge in the High Court, being attached to what was then the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. In 1965 he was insured for £300,000 when he presided for 91 days over what was then the longest will case in Britain for half a century. He went to the Court of Appeal in 1973 and the House of Lords as a Law Lord in 1977.

It is here that his critics try to find fault, pointing out that too often he seems to have been prepared to go along with his senior colleagues, rarely dissenting from their judgments. In 1979 he was part of the court which upheld the conviction of Gay News for blasphemy when it suggested that Christ was homosexual. In 1981 he ruled that the GLC's cheap fares policy was illegal and in 1985 he allowed Margaret Thatcher to withdraw trade-union rights from GCHQ in the interests of national security. He became the senior law lord in 1985 and retired the following year but not before he had ruled that a girl under 16 could obtain the Pill without her parents' consent or knowledge.

Ken Livingstone regarded him as a hypocrite. "I am not interested in people who get wonderfully progressive after they retire. He had his chance when he had power; he did not take it," Livingstone told The Guardian. Others in the law shared a similar sadness, if expressing it more delicately, seeing him personally as something of a mask; for example, the only visible sign of anger being a flush on his cheeks. Scarman explained in 1991, "I knew my duty. A judge's job is to decide cases according to existing law. He must not allow his instincts or desires to influence his judgement."

Some noted a degree of intellectual snobbery and one QC recalled that, once, when he failed to comprehend the word dendritic, Scarman interrupted, "When I was at school we were properly educated. Dendritic comes from the Greek word dendron, meaning tree."

He was, however, quite capable of casting off the stuffy "Who are the Beatles?" mantle of many judges of his era and in February 1977 commented that under-age sex was something which "happens almost every Saturday night all over the country". The Sun took him to task, saying it did not share either his belief or complacency.

Scarman was chairman of four commissions, beginning with Northern Ireland in 1969, during which his personal charm and courtesy did a great deal to diffuse tense situations and bring recalcitrant and hostile witnesses into the fold of the inquiry. Northern Ireland was followed by the Red Lion Square riot of 1974 when demonstrators clashed with the police; the 1977 Grunwick dispute, in which Asian workers had demonstrated against their employers and, the most recalled of all, the Brixton disorders of 1981. Of his Irish excursion he commented that he had received very few threats, "not more than a judge active in criminal work might receive in England".

However, not all his reports were well received and in particular the Red Lion Square inquiry was seen by some as a blanket condemnation of all the demonstrators and a total exoneration of the police and authorities. Scarman was reported to have been considerably upset by this feeling. Perhaps these extra-judicial jobs were what finally flushed him from his desire for security and from the conservative cocoon with which he had surrounded himself during his career at the Bar and on the Bench.

In 1965 he was the first chairman of the Law Commission, set up by Lord Gardiner, the Labour Lord Chancellor, when he began a review calling for the liberalisation of the divorce laws. In all, during his seven-year term, the Commission's work led to nearly 30 statutes based wholly or in substantial part on its recommendations.

In 1974, in his Hamlyn Lectures, he proposed a Bill of Rights, the first such intervention in the long-running debate by a senior judge, and in 1979 he had urged judges to come out of their cloister; but it was the Brixton inquiry which finally brought him out and into the media spotlight. At a time when the locals found it difficult to accept they would receive an equal hearing, Scarman was prepared to speak to local people on film and was quite happy to have a camera following him as he toured the area, dropping in uninvited on the local police and clubs alike, holding babies as he chatted with their parents. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, thought at the time it was just the sort of thing which a judge should not do but, a decade later, was happy to accept that Scarman had been correct in his way of gaining and maintaining the confidence of the community.

Scarman's report was extensively quoted in the Lawrence Report of 1999. He had set out in his own findings that

institutional racism does not exist in Britain: but racial disadvantage and its nasty associate racial discrimination have not been eliminated. They poison minds and attitudes: they are, and so long as they remain, will continue to be, a potent factor of unrest.

Racially prejudiced behaviour, he believed, should be a dismissible offence.

By now he was regarded as a people's judge - something which brought with it some envy if not actual jealousy from colleagues. When he interviewed Lord Denning on the radio it was wryly suggested that next he would be taking over from Robin Day.

As he grew older Scarman became more and more prepared to champion the underdog, and in December 1986 he told a conference of Shelter that he believed that moonlighting was better than not working at all. The following month, he warned of Britain becoming a slum society because of poor housing. Those individuals who benefited from his attention were the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Winston Silcott and the other two men convicted with him in the Tottenham Riots.

A regular correspondent to The Times, he was highly critical of the Attorney General's conduct over Immunity Interest certificates in the Matrix Churchill case. "The overwhelming duty of the Attorney General is to promote justice," he wrote.

One of his failures was when, in 1993, he was unable to persuade the Home Secretary not to extradite two women accused of a cult plot to murder a federal attorney in Oregon. He had argued that allowing the extradition would be putting the women at risk of a serious miscarriage of justice. That year he was among senior judges who condemned attempts to institute statutory press controls following extensive reporting of the matrimonial troubles of the Prince and Princess of Wales. "The freedom of the press is desperately important," he said.

During his career Scarman was president of many organisations, including the Constitutional Reform Centre and the Citizen Action Compensation Committee. He was chairman of the Council of Legal Education and Chancellor of Warwick University. He was also a member of the Arts Council and a Vice-Chairman of English National Opera. He was the author of Law Reform: the new pattern (1968) and English Law: the new dimension (1974). Academic honours were heaped upon him.

A private man, Scarman listed his recreations as gardening and walking in Hyde Park with his wife, Ruth. He disapproved of formal dinners, regarding them as a "menace to men in public life. It's heavy, it's tedious and it's tiring. Too much to eat and too much to drink." However, he liked Middle Temple dinners because "then one is among one's own".

James Morton

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