He’s a law student favourite, but his views might shock you
Lord Denning is to many the most famous judge of all time. Law students certainly love him for his colourful judgments and wild dissents — small wonder he was named one of the most influential people in the legal profession by University of Law students.
But is he really worthy of his law student favourite crown? While Denning’s judgments certainly make for interesting reading, they’ve also been slammed for being difficult to follow. And, as Denning grew older and older, he grew more senile and arguably more controversial.
World War I veteran Denning died in 1999 after making it to 100 and, particularly in his later years, became known for making comments that didn’t really wash. The Independent felt so strongly about his decline, it ran a piece just two days after his death headlined: ‘If only Lord Denning had died at seventy…”.
Some will say these comments were simply a product of the century he lived through, much of it pre-gay and civil rights movements. This said, it’s still interesting to reflect on seven of Denning’s more eye-raising quotes, given his endearing ‘most famous judge of all time’ status.
1. He described homosexuality as a cult
During a parliamentary debate — which included the Earl of Halsbury describing homosexuals as promiscuous, exhibitionist “reservoirs of venereal diseases” — Denning said:
“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.”
2. He struck out the Birmingham Six’s compensation claim for questionable reasons
Denning was one of many judges involved in what’s becoming known as the Birmingham Six case, in which six men were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the deadly Birmingham pub bombings of 1974.
Former Master of the Rolls Denning’s role came in 1980, with the still-incarcerated Birmingham Six’s civil claim against the police. Dismissing the case, he said:
“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’.”
The convictions were quashed in 1991. The men would later, in 2001, go on to receive approximately £1 million in compensation each.
3. Innocent people being hanged would ‘satisfy’ the community
Again on the Birmingham Six, 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.” He always insisted these remarks had been taken out of context.
4. Denning described a Tory politician born in London as a German Jew
Denning notably told a reporter that Leon Brittan, a now deceased Conservative MP and member of the European Commission, was a “German Jew”. He was born in London to Lithuanian parents. When pushed on what Brittan’s heritage had to do with anything, he said:
“I think you’ll find he’s a German Jew, telling us what to do with our English law. It’s quite plain that these pan-Europeans do not go by the words of the treaty. That’s why I don’t think there’s much chance of altering things.”
Denning also slammed Brittan, a barrister, for his advocacy skills. “He appeared before me several times when he was at the bar, in libel cases,” Denning revealed. “He was no good.”
5. He made that Guildford Four comment
In the mid-1970s, three men and one woman were convicted and sentenced for their alleged involvement in IRA attacks. Released in 1989, the four served a combined prison sentence of 60 years and the case is now a staple in the discussion of miscarriages of justice. Despite this, Denning said the Guildford Four were “probably guilty”.
6. Homosexuals can’t be judges
It was the case in legal history that threatening to ‘out’ people, whether they were gay or not, was a common basis for blackmail. Though homosexuality had been at least partly decriminalised by 1967, in 1990 Denning suggested homosexuals’ vulnerability to blackmail should stop them from being appointed as judges. Sir Terence Etherton, now Master of the Rolls as Denning once was, is openly gay.
7. Black people can’t serve on juries
Denning’s comment about black people serving on juries, made in 1982, is perhaps his most controversial.
“The underlying assumption is that all citizens are sufficiently qualified to serve on a jury,” Denning wrote in his book What Next in the Law. “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.”
The comments caused such a backlash, he publicly apologised and resigned soon after.