Trio of tributes to senior judges … and fondly remembered insults

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Jul 31, 2017
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Valedictory tributes to the most senior judges in the land do not come along often.  But last week, there were three in immediate succession – bus-like, pointed out Robert Bourns, the last president of the Law Society of England and Wales, as he gave speeches on behalf of his organisation and counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

First were the tributes to Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who is stepping down as lord chief justice. Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls, reminded the packed lord chief’s Court No 4 at the Royal Courts of Justice that by the time Lord Thomas took over the role in 2013 he had “unparalleled experience of the delivery of criminal and civil justice”. 

By then, though, Sir Terence recalled, it would also “be fair to say that John's limited tolerance of management-speak and waffle had been made pretty clear. No-one was spared. On one occasion, with increasing irritation, he made angry red-lined deletions and insertions in a document and demanded to know who had produced it. ‘You,’ he was reminded”.

Lord Thomas’s huge experience and restless energy combined with a high intellect and clear sense of purpose which, Sir Terence said, explained his “quite remarkable levels of activity and achievement” in his four years, and also what may be described as the “reverse Imelda Marcos effect. I am told that low heeled shoes for the women members of his private office are regarded as essential to keep up with his pace”.

In reply, Lord Thomas talked about his background. His father was a solicitor and the influence of the law clearly started early. As a child he was asked as part of a general knowledge test what the initials PM stood for. “Post mortem,” the future judge replied.

Grandpa was late

The day after Lord Thomas’s farewells, senior judges and members of the profession packed into court 1 at the Supreme Court for tributes to Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury and Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony. Proceedings were late starting, prompting the latter’s two-year old grandson to declare impatiently: “Where’s grandpa?”

Baroness Hale of Richmond, paying tribute to Lord Neuberger, singled out two of his notable rulings. The first was his landmark dissent in the second Belmarsh case in 2004, which involved foreign detainees at the maximum security prison who alleged that they had been arrested in the UK on the basis of information obtained through torture at Guantanamo Bay. Lord Neuberger said that evidence obtained by torture was inadmissible.

The second involved a 2015 judgment that overruled the attorney-general’s veto on the publication of the Prince of Wales’s letters to ministers. The veto was inconsistent with the rule of law and separation of powers, Lord Neuberger found. Soon after that ruling, Lord Neuberger found himself at a Buckingham Palace garden party, where he had to spend time lurking at the back, not wanting to bump into the heir to the throne.

Sir David Steel, a former High Court judge and a barrister contemporary of Lord Clarke, recalled a case in which they appeared on opposite sides and had a bet as to which could first extract from a witness the phrase: “I have not come here to be insulted.”

At the end of the hearing, he said, the score was two-all. “But Tony declared me to be the clear winner as I had obtained the answers from my own witness.”

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