Outspoken judge who helped shape criminal law syllabuses dies aged 85

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Silence can amount to assault, thanks to Lord Steyn’s ruling in case law classic R v Ireland

Outspoken judge Lord Steyn has passed away this week, aged 85.

Steyn may not have enjoyed the same level of popularity among students as Lord Denning, but his legacy will quietly live on inside the covers of criminal textbooks.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1932, Steyn first began his law studies at the University of Stellenbosch, which is about an hour’s drive from his birth city. He was then awarded a Rhodes scholarship to read English at University College, Oxford. Returning to his native South Africa, he was called to the bar in 1958 and appointed senior counsel of the South African Supreme Court in 1970.

A vocal opponent of apartheid, Steyn moved back to the United Kingdom in 1973 and joined Essex Court Chambers, practising as an international commercial lawyer for 12 years. Working his way up the judicial ranks, he was appointed a High Court judge in 1985 and then Lord Justice of Appeal in 1992.

Lord Steyn

Impressive achievements aside, law students may be interested to know that Steyn is directly responsible for making the criminal offence of assault what it is today.

Upholding a lower court’s decision in R v Ireland, Steyn ruled that silence can amount to an assault and psychiatric injury can amount to bodily harm. The case itself involved a defendant who made a number of silent telephone calls over three months to three different women, causing fear.

Other law syllabus staples that Steyn had a hand in include the cases of R v Woolin and Chester v Afshar. The former — which involved the death of a young child at the hands of his father — helped redefine mens rea, the mental element of a crime. The latter case focused on the application of the well-known ‘but for’ test in the context of negligence and informed consent of medical patients.

Nearing the end of his judicial career and not one to mince his words, Steyn once described Guantanamo Bay as “a hellhole of utter lawlessness”, before launching a public attack against Lord Hoffmann, a fellow Law Lord, for suggesting courts should not get involved in certain government decisions. He stepped down from the bench in 2005, and was then chairman of the human rights group JUSTICE.

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