The Pinochet Ruling: Oversight led to humiliation of legal system

Lord Hoffmann's Legacy
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The Independent Online
THE SHADOW of Lord Hoffmann was ever-present at the Lords hearing. Put simply, if it had not been for him it would never have taken place and the convoluted and seemingly never-ending legal process may well have concluded by now.

Instead, the Hoffmann controversy led to the unprecedented quashing of the first law lords ruling, which was, by a majority of three to two, that the former Chilean dictator did not have immunity from prosecution. Lord Hoffmann cast the final vote against the general and became the toast of the liberal intelligentsia as the progressive face of the legal establishment. But all that turned to ashes when it emerged later that he had failed to declare that his wife worked for Amnesty International and he was a key figure in its fundraising arm.

Amnesty had appeared as intervenors at the hearing and argued that General Pinochet should face justice in Spain. The link was known in most legal circles. General Pinochet's solicitor, Kingsley Napley, hadgiven generously to an Amnesty appeal in response to a letter signed by, among others, Lord Hoffmann and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill. Sitting on the Privy Council, Lord Hoffmann had also given rulings inimically opposed to Amnesty's position.

But General Pinochet's lawyers appealed against the ruling on the basis that there was "an appearance of bias". Law lords decided by 5-0 that the first ruling should be set aside. It was a humiliating day for British justice, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said that in future, judges must declare their interests.

What was so galling for those who wanted to see General Pinochet face justice was that the first ruling had been thrown away by a foolish oversight.

If Lord Hoffmann had mentioned the connection he and his wife had to Amnesty at the beginning of the Lords' hearing, say many observers, there is every possibility that there would have been no objection from General Pinochet's team.