Friday March 5, 1999

Denning: A life of law

Lord Denning: Judgments were "models of simple English"

Lord Denning was perhaps the greatest law-making judge of the century and the most controversial.

His achievement was to shape the common law according to his own highly individual vision of society.

Tom Denning was born in January 1899. His father Charles owned a draper's shop in the Hampshire town of Whitchurch.

The young Denning loved the place so much he made his home there, in a fine Regency house called The Lawn.

He first married in 1932, but wife Mary died nine years later. His second wife Joan, whom he married in 1945, died in 1992.

Rise through ranks

After taking two first-class degrees at Oxford, the young Denning was called to the Bar in 1923.

Some 20 years later, he was Mr Justice Denning. After rapid promotion to the Court of Appeal he became a law lord in 1957.



But the turning point came in 1962. That was the year he stepped down from the House of Lords to a much more influential post - Master of the Rolls.

A year later, the public learned of an affair between prostitute Christine Keeler and John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War.

When the scandal broke Lord Denning was asked by the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to inquire into security aspects of the affair.

He sat alone and in private, even sending the women shorthand-writers out because he thought some of the evidence was so disgusting.

As Lord Denning himself remarked, his report was a best-seller. More than 100,000 people bought copies.

It also put him firmly in the public eye. In an age when judges shunned publicity, Lord Denning became the one judicial figure everybody had heard of.

During his 20 years as Master of the Rolls, he could choose his own cases and the judges who were to sit with him. So on most issues, he effectively had the last word.

Not many cases went on to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court of law.

Law in his own hands

But in seeking justice Lord Denning, considered himself entitled to get round - or even change - any rule of law that stood in his way. There was no need to wait for legislation.

"Parliament does it too late," he argued. "It may take years and years before a statute can be passed to amend a bad law.

"The judge ... should make the law correspond with the justice that the case requires."

But Lord Denning's critics said his willingness to overturn decided cases made for uncertainty in the law.

Although he saw himself as champion of the underdog - the ordinary citizen, the consumer, the deserted wife - he supported employers against trade unions, education authorities against students, and the Home Office against immigrants.

Book provokes fury

Lord Denning inspired great affection among lawyers and it gave him pleasure to welcome new recruits to the profession. He was still Master of the Rolls at the age of 83.



But his 1982 book What Next in the Law was his downfall. In it, he seemed to suggest some black people were unsuitable to serve on juries.

His remarks followed a trial over a riot in Bristol. Two jurors on the case threatened to sue him.

Lord Denning backed down and avoided further conflict by apologising. He then announced he would be retiring.

Even in retirement he remained busy. He continued writing, including the books Landmarks in Law and Leaves from my Library.

But his comments in retirement added nothing to his reputation. Another apology followed his claim that the Guildford Four, acquitted on appeal after being jailed for an IRA bombing, were probably guilty of murder all along.

Controversy in retirement

Lord Denning's prejudices demonstrated the risks of letting one man dispense justice.

But they should not detract from a judicial career unique in our time.

Tom Denning stood firm for freedom under the law, a phrase he coined.

His whole life was devoted to justice. His creativity was immense and his legacy will last for as long as the law itself.

His mind remained razor sharp despite old age. And as his epitaph he chose: "Remembrance of me in good works, that is how I should like to be remembered."