Lord Denning, the century's greatest judge, dies at 100

Ian Burrell Home Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 06 March 1999 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


THE "PEOPLE'S JUDGE", Lord Denning, who died yesterday at the age of 100, was remem-bered as the most famous and influential judicial figure of the century.

The often-controversial former Master of the Rolls died "peacefully" in the early hours of the morning at the Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester, six weeks after his birthday. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who appeared before the judge as a fledgling barrister in the early Eighties, said yesterday that Lord Denning was "one of the great men of his age.

"His judgments were a model of lucidity. He was prepared to use the law for its true purpose - in the interests of fairness and justice. He had a tremendous feel for ordinary people," Mr Blair said.

His views were echoed by the former prime minister Baroness Thatcher, who said: "Lord Denning was probably the greatest English judge of modern times. He combined a love of liberty with a passion for justice. His life and work will provide inspiration for generations to come."

Often controversial, Lord Denning never rose beyond Master of the Rolls, the third highest legal appointment after the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor, but his impact on the law was unrivalled during his lifetime.

Alfred Thompson "Tom" Denning, a draper's son, was born in Whitchurch, Hampshire, in January 1899. He was educated at Andover Grammar School, before going to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he gained a triple first.

After a year teaching at Winchester he decided on a career at the Bar - "because I was ambitious and saw it as the best way to advancement".

He was a judge by 45 and in the Court of Appeal by the exceptionally young age of 49. But he came to prominence as the head of the inquiry into the Profumo political scandal in 1963 and for making a series of popular judgments including becoming the first judge to treat co-habiting couples as though they were married.

Lord Denning also ruled that a wife in a divorce case was entitled to an equal share of her husband's wealth and made the judgment that allowed Sir Freddie Laker the right to compete with British Airways, paving the way for cheap transatlantic flights.

But in later life, the "voice of common-sense" began to sound increasingly reactionary.

Lord Denning said he had no qualms about donning the black cap to pass a death sentence and he mused that the Guildford Four were "probably guilty" and said: "We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they'd been hanged. They'd have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied."

He retired in 1982 after a storm of controversy about his book, What Next in the Law, in which he suggested that some immigrants might not be suitable to serve on juries.

After his retirement Lord Denning returned to his home village of Whitchurch, living with his wife in a magnificent Regency house set amid 35 acres. When he celebrated his 100th birthday in January, more than 170 lawyers and judges gathered at the University of Buckingham to pay tribute to his achievements.

Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said: "The name Denning was a byword for the law itself. His judgments were models of simple English which ordinary people understood.

"He had huge intellect and reforming imagination in equal measures, and in court, he never failed to be an object lesson in judicial courtesy."

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, was equally laudatory.

"Lord Denning was the best- known and best-loved judge of this, or perhaps any, generation," Lord Bingham said. "He was a legend in his own lifetime. His memory will be cherished by his countless friends on the Bench, at the Bar and among the wider public throughout the Commonwealth."

Leading article, Review page 3. Obituary, Review page 10

Wisdom From All His Years On The Bench

On family values: "There is a prevailing philosophy of `anything goes' and the strength of family life is being eroded."

On honesty: "A lot of people have not got the same standards of conduct - uprightness or honesty - as they had in the past."

On religion: "Without religion, no morality; without morality, no law."

On divorce: "The divorce court should not penalise anyone and a wife should be entitled to an equal share of her husband's wealth."

On the armed forces: "A disabled former serviceman should not have to prove he was injured in the services to win the right to a pension."

On choosing a career in law: "Because I was ambitious and saw it as the best way to advancement."

On his role in the 1960s Profumo inquiry: "I have had to be detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge and it has been difficult to combine them."

On police: The idea of officers lying about their treatment of the Birmingham Six was an "appalling vista".

On the Birmingham Six: "We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they'd been hanged. They'd have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied."

On industrial action at the time of the miners' strike: "A malaise - a disease - affecting our country today".

On remaining on the bench into his eighties: "I have all the Christian virtues - except resignation."

On compulsory retirement of judges: "You can do good work after 75. I think I gave some of my judgments of greatest value after 75."

On long life: "By eating plain English food. I don't want any of that French stuff."

On co-habiting: "Couples who live together should be treated in the same way as those who are married."

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