Why Lord Denning is not as great as you might have imagined

Lord Alfred Denning was a great judge, no doubt, but he is not the unblemished form of legend as you might have imagined. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The contributions of Lord Alfred Thompson Denning, Master of Rolls, to legal jurisprudence and equity are enormous to the development of common law in various jurisdictions. Regarded as “probably the greatest English judge of modern times” by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, the canonization of Denning as an unblemished judge had been served by legalists to preserve the image of the legal doyen. However, you might be surprised that the Master of Rolls is not the saint you might have been made to believe and is fraught with faults and biases, as all human jurists are inclined to have.

Known as “people’s judge”, Denning served the benches of the notable courts in England and Wales, serving in different positions in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice, the King’s Bench, House of Lords, Court of Appeal and making his mark as a Master of Rolls for 20 years. He is loved for his colorful judgments and wild dissidents. The populist judge and World War I veteran died after a successful career of 37 years in 1999 at the age of 100, making him the favorite of law students and legal practitioners around the globe.

Lord Denning’s judgments have been questioned and examined in different quarters, and his last acts on the Bench have made him a questionable character in legalists’ bad book. His derogatory comments, his style of jurisprudence and his favoritism towards reverting precedents had made Denning a controversial figure in legal dynamics and had marked a stain in the Master of Rolls’ legendary career.

Denning’s role in the Birmingham Six case has called his moralism to question. He was prominent for his stand during the conviction and death sentence of six men for the deadly Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. Although the six were acquitted and compensated, he ruled that the men should be stopped from challenging legal decisions. He said while dismissing the case:

“Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial … If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. … That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.”

Although he had argued that his comments were taken out of context, he also said in the Birmingham Six case that the hanging of innocent people would be to the satisfaction of the public. Denning is reported to have said: “We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get them released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied.”

Also, during a parliamentary debate on the amendment of the Local Government Act in 1986, he gave derogatory comments ondescribed homosexuals as “promiscuous, exhibitionist “reservoirs of venereal diseases”. He stated before the audience, with the Earl of Halsbury in presence, that:

“We must not allow this cult of homosexuality, making it equal with heterosexuality, to develop in our land. We must preserve our moral and spiritual values.”

Denning was also not too loved amongst his fellow judges and legal contemporaries. In Lord Denning: The Man and His Times, Jowell and McAuslan quote a 1980 article from the Cambrian Law Journal in which the author stated, “We are witnessing the tragic drama of a great judge whose acute sense of rightness has become a conviction of righteousness, whose consciousness of the need for justice has led him to become a self-appointed arbiter in the politics of society and whose desire to draw attention to defects in our law has noticeably drawn attention to himself.” Also, his rulings in the popular Profumo affair which shot Deninng into limelight had been criticized by his fellow lords, stating that “the level of detail in the report and the “gossipy” style were unprofessional.” This, however, did not put Denning’s capabilities into doubt. In Lord Denning: The Man and His Times, it is also stated that “whatever criticisms were made of the substance or style of the judgement of the Master of the Rolls, nobody doubted that his physical capacities to preside over his court were unaffected by his years.”

Lord Denning also spurred anger in the Black community on the comments he made in his book “What Next in Law”. In the book, he questioned the capacities of Blacks to serve on juries. 

“I do not agree. The English are no longer a homogeneous race. They are white and black, coloured and brown. They no longer share the same standards of conduct. Some of them come from countries where bribery and graft are accepted as an integral part of life and where stealing is a virtue so long as you are not found out… They will never accept the word of a policeman against one of their own.”

His remarks, prompted by a trial over the St Pauls riot in Bristol, made two jurors on the case threaten to sue him and the demand of the Society of Black Lawyers to the Lord Chancellor that Denning “politely and firmly” be made to retire. He resigned his position amidst these controversies, telling the New York Times of his desire to leave the bench while “still at his peak”.

His comments in interviews had also widened the Denning controversy. In interviews, the Master of Rolls suggested that the four in the Guildford Four case — a case in the staple of miscarriages of justice where three men and one woman served combined sentences amounting to 60 years — were “probably guilty.” In another, he stated that “donning his black cap to pass a death sentence had never troubled him.” He also made comments that exhibited biases on race about Leon Brittan, a now-deceased Conservative MP and member of the European Commission; he told a reporter that Brittan was a “German Jew”. This has raised brows to Denning’s impartiality and morality.

Although these acts do not portray Denning in great light, the achievements of Denning as a driving force in the development of common law in the 21st century can never be doubted. This, however, does not excuse Lord Denning from his faults. Lord Alfred Denning was a great judge, no doubt, but he is not the unblemished form of legend as you might have imagined.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 6, 2021


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