Lord Denning: A renaissance in Law
“If you are an advocate you want your client to win. If you are a judge you don’t care who wins exactly. All you are concerned about is justice.”
Those words are as controversial as the man who said them—and just as immense.
DENNING’S EARLY LIFE
Alfred Thompson Denning was born on 23rd January 1899 to a draper in the village of Whitchurch. His family was comprised of five boys, some of whom went on to achieve great things on their own.
One became a General whilst another became an Admiral. Alfred, though, in terms of achievement, went on to become a god among giants.
And yet, he was barely mortal at the time of his birth. A premature baby (born two months early), Denning was very small and weak, and as is the case with many premature babies, clung onto the fringes of life in the weeks that followed his birth. Fortunately, he survived.
He was exceptional in his academics, winning a scholarship to Andover Grammar School and prizes for four essays written. The latter explains his great judgements when he was a judge.
Hon. Justice M. D. Kirby later referred to him as a “modern master” of English prose.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR: A DEFINING PERIOD
“The poppies slipped from my hand to the floor. Eyes filled with tears.”
That is how Denning described the news of his brothers’ deaths in his book, “The Due Process of Law.” They had been killed in the war. Jack, the eldest, died leading his men at Flanders. The other, Gordon, a sailor, was killed in the Battle of Jutland, aged 19. He further wrote, “…Jack and Gordon—they were the best of us…”
Denning himself fought in the war. He went for the last nine months because he had been too young to go before. He came out unhurt.
In the period before he was enlisted in the army to go and fight, Denning taught himself mathematics due to a shortage of schoolmasters who had left to join the British armed forces and the inability of those that were left to ably teach him.
Denning sat the Oxbridge examination when he was sixteen and was accepted at Magdalen College, Oxford. Although he was accepted by the college, he had to gain entry to the University as a whole, which meant passing exams such as Greek—which he taught himself—in order to get through to the University.
Lord Denning managed to turn hardship and strife into an opportunity to fully express his mental capabilities, even earning part of his Mathematics degree despite having military training in the morning and evening.
His time at Magdalen College, Oxford was only interrupted by the war. On return, he earned a First Class in Mathematical Greats. He taught Mathematics for a while before returning to the college to study Jurisprudence.
He was called to the bar on 13th June 1923 after coming first in the bar examination, and the most beautiful journey in the law was born.
EARLY YEARS IN THE LAW
For this part, I find it fitting to quote Hon. Justice M.D Kirby’s words in “Lord Denning: An Antipodean Appreciation” on Denning’s early legal practice:
“He soon learned that the law and justice were not always the same thing. Cases came to him for opinion. In accordance with the binding authority of the highest courts, they required conclusions that struck him as unjust.
“The House of Lords had decided it. That was the end of the matter”, he later wrote.
Cases of apparent injustice disturbed Denning. He was later to describe binding principles as “false idols which disfigured the temple of the law.”
In the fullness of his career, he was to come to a position where he could do something about them.”
DENNING AS A JUDGE
Denning was appointed as a Judge of the High Court in 1944. One of his most famous cases in his four years as a Judge there is Central London Property Trust Ltd v. High Trees House Ltd where he brought back the principle of promissory estoppel and became a landmark in Contract Law.
In 1948, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal. He was later sworn in as a Privy Counsellor on 25th October 1948.
In the nine years before his move to the House of Lords, there were some sensational decisions that redefined common law, including his leading judgement in Entores Ltd. v Miles Far East Corporation which implemented a way to judge the moment of acceptance in an instantaneous or near-instantaneous method of communication.
He was appointed to the House of Lords in 1957 and became Baron Denning. However, he was an avid reformist and clashed regularly with some justices in the House of Lords who were conservative.
He left in 1962 to become a Master of the Rolls after the resignation of Lord Evershed and returned to the Court of Appeal. He was to stay in this court till his last judgement in 1982.
And what a monumental stay it was!
Landmark case after landmark case was decided by Denning. From Thornton v. Shoe Lane Parking Ltd in Contract Law to Letang v Cooper in Tort Law, Denning decided them all.
Even his last judgement, George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd v Finney Lock Seeds Ltd on 29th September 1982, in which he dissented, became a landmark ruling.
He eventually resigned in May 1982, after a series of health issues and remarks he made about black people and immigrants not being suitable to serve as jurors that did not go down well with the public.
He remained active in the law, however, writing books such as “Landmarks in the Law”
On 5th March 1999, he died of internal haemorrhage.
As a legal scholar, the name “Denning” grows with you in your education. That is how large Lord Denning’s shadow on Common Law is.
Michelangelo was born to grace the canvas. Shakespeare was born to grace the stage. Napoleon Bonaparte was born to grace the battlefield.
Lord Denning was born to grace the Courts of Law.