Lord Steyn, establishment thorn and law lord, dies aged 85

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Dec 04, 2017
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Lord Steyn had to restart his legal career after emigrating from South Africa

Andre Camara for The Times

Lord Steyn – renowned as one of the UK’s most liberal law lords – died last week aged 85.

It was announced that the South African-born judge died of a cerebral haemorrhage on November 28. An Afrikaner, Johan van Zyl Steyn was a prominent opponent of apartheid who rose at a relatively young age to a seat on the bench of South Africa’s supreme court.

He emigrated to Britain in 1973 and had to start his legal career from the relatively lower rungs of the professional ladder. Again, his rise in the UK was, as The Times obituary notes, meteoric. He took silk six years after arriving at the English Bar and in 1985 he was appointed to the High Court in the Queen’s Bench Division.

Lord Steyn was promoted to the Court of Appeal in 1992 and three years later took a place in the judicial committee of the House of Lords, the precursor to the UK’s Supreme Court.

In 2003 Lord Steyn outraged the Labour hierarchy when he accused David Blunkett, the home secretary, of using “weasel words” in justifying the government’s policy on asylum seekers. A year later the senior law lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, was asked not to include Lord Steyn on the nine-judge panel to decide on the legality of detaining foreign terror suspects without trial.

Ultimately, Lord Steyn agreed to stand down, but later told The Times that the government had raised a “truly flimsy objection”. He added that it was the first time that a government had ever sought and obtained an alteration in the composition of the House of Lords’ judicial committee.

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