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The Maestro-Lord Denning

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Last week we looked at statute and case law, and this week we would look at one of the great architects of case law, the eminent English jurist, Alfred Thompson “Tom” Denning otherwise known as Baron Denning and Lord Denning. Hailed as the greatest. he may also be viewed as controversial. Lord Denning was born in 1899 and died in 1999. His name continues to be uttered by lawyers and judges throughout the Common Law jurisdictions. No law student could complete a law education without noting the contribution of Lord Denning. Lord Wolf, in an interview after Lord Denning’s death, attributed his influence to the fact that he championed the cause of “the little man against the big battalions.”{{more}}

He completed a degree in Mathematics at Oxford University with first class honours. He taught Mathematics for a while and returned to Oxford University to study law where he replicated his earlier successes.

A colossus and icon of his time, he dominated the second half of the 20th century. He scaled the ladder in the legal profession moving from High Court judge to the Court of Appeal and subsequently to the highest position as a law lord in the House of Lord. In 1962, he stepped down from the House of Lord to the influential position of Master of the Rolls, that is, head of the Civil Court of Appeal, equivalent to the position of Chief Justice in the Eastern Caribbean States. Twenty of the 38 years that he spent on the Bench, were spent as Master of the Rolls. It is in this role that he made his greatest mark. Not many of his cases were appealed.

Lord Denning was not a slave to the law and precedents he decided matters on the justice of the case. It is said that he “bent the law into interesting directions.” He did not wait on Parliament, claiming that, “Parliament does it too late”. He opined that. “It may take years and years before a statute can be passed to amend a bad law.” His judgments have been known for their simplicity, as he did not adhere to technical and legal jargons.

His most famous and perhaps most influential decision, came in the case of Central London Property Trust Ltd. v High Trees House Ltd., (1947) K.B. 130. In that case the issue of consideration was replaced by the novel idea of “my bond is my word” Hence where a person promises to perform an act and the other person acts on it he is estopped (prevented) from going back on his word. This is the doctrine of “promissory estoppel” or “equitable estoppel”



He was propelled to the peak of his career with the Pufumo case. The Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in 1963 asked him to enquire into the role of the police and the security services because of the scandal involving his Secretary of State for War, John Pufumo and a prostitute Christine Keeler. The report, that he wrote became a best seller and placed the judge in the face of the public.

But he was a controversial figure. Some legal academics criticized him for not following the law. In 1982, he wrote a controversial book, “What next in the law,” in which he suggested that, “Some black people were unsuitable to serve on juries”. He was highly criticized. To avoid conflict he apologized and retired as Master of the Rolls. Even after his retirement, at age 83 years, he continued to write books. He died a few months after his 100th birthday.

• Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.

E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com

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