Over a long and in some ways remarkable legal and judicial career, Lord Denning made a significant and substantial contribution to English law and jurisprudence. Every law student will remember the decision in Hightrees and many other cases where Lord Denning changed the law. I had the pleasure of meeting him twice, twenty five years apart, and he recalled the first meeting, which surprised me. While the chill winds of constructionalism prevailed in the years after his retirement, and the House of Lords did much do undo some of the impact Denning had on English law, Denning was not always of a liberal or libertarian disposition and, at times, revealed a remarkable reluctance to admit of the fallibility of the justice system.
A note in Wikipedia reveals a glimpse of this illiberalism:
“In the summer of 1990 he agreed to a taped interview with A.N. Wilson, to be published in The Spectator. They discussed the Guildford Four; Denning remarked that if the Guildford Four had been hanged “They’d probably have hanged the right men. Just not proved against them, that’s all”.His remarks were controversial and came at a time when the issue of miscarriage of justice was a sensitive topic.He had expressed a similar controversial opinion regarding the Birmingham Six in 1988, saying: “Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. 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 be satisfied… It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.
I haven’t checked all these references for this blog post, but the wikipedia note appears to be a reasonably accurate summation.
I can, however, discuss another example of reluctance to admit of the possibility of a miscarriage of justice. I watched, in the early hours of this morning, an excellent BBC film covering the interesting and excellent work of the Rough Justice series – the first time television journalists had been instrumental in bringing a miscarriage of justice to the attention of the Court of Appeal and securing a quashed verdict.
The Rough Justice programme is a must watch for any law student. They say, it is the reason we have the the Criminal Cases Review Commission; an independent body which is a valuable observer and practical overseer of our criminal justice system.
It was strange to see Lord Denning, a judge who did much to protect the vulnerable, to act judicially in the interest of the ‘common man and and woman’, reveal a reluctance to admit of judicial fallibility when he expressed the view that once a judge and jury had dealt with a case, journalists should not be poking their noses in. (I paraphrase).
I am pleased however: (a) that we no longer have the death penalty (b) that we have The Criminal Cases Review Commission (c) that we have investigative journalists who are prepared to ‘poke their noses in to the workings of government and judiciary and, to be fair, (d) a higher judiciary prepared to apply the law of our land and act as a break on the government and executive, perhaps, more fairly than in days gone by – this latter point made by Lord Bingham, one of our most distinguished judges.
I urge you to watch the Rough Justice programme on iPlayer before it is is taken down. Another excellent programme from the BBC.