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Saturday, January 23, 1999 Published at 19:03 GMT


Lord's century: Denning at 100

Lord Denning: A powerful figure even in old age

One of the most controversial and prominent judges of modern times, Lord Denning, is marking his 100th birthday.

The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg reports on Lord Denning at 100
The legal supremo, who used never to be out of the headlines, faced the cameras once again for the anniversary milestone. Family and a few close friends joined the centenarian to hear Basingstoke Male Voice choir strike up a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.

Lord Denning rocketed to household name status as a Kenneth Starr of his day.

In 1963, while still fresh to his appointment as Master of the Rolls, he was asked to investigate the Profumo sex scandal which had blown apart Harold Macmillan's government.

Racy report

The resulting 60,000-word report into the circumstances of War Minister John Profumo's resignation shook the establishment rather like Mr Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky did 35 years later.

Brimful of salacious details, Lord Denning's account was described at the time as the "raciest and most readable Blue Book ever published".

[ image: Denning's inquiry into the Profumo scandal put him in the public eye]
Denning's inquiry into the Profumo scandal put him in the public eye
Within an hour of its release, 4,000 copies had been sold to the public. Sales topped 100,000 over the next few months.

After that Lord Denning was rarely out of the public eye as his unique and autonomous approach to law-making catapulted him from one controversy to another.

A complex and mercurial character, his dedication to addressing the rights of the individual against the faceless authority of government is probably the most consistent strain running through his judgements.

He stood firm for "freedom under the law", a phrase that he claimed to have coined.

Born at the tail-end of the last century in the Hampshire village where he still lives, Alfred Thompson Denning rose to high office from relatively humble origins.

[ image: Prostitute Christine Keeler was central to the Profumo affair]
Prostitute Christine Keeler was central to the Profumo affair
A grammar school boy and the son of a Hampshire draper, the young Tom Denning trained for the infantry in 1917 while reading mathematics at Oxford.

He served in France at the end of World War I with the Royal Engineers, before returning to Oxford to resume his studies. He took a first in mathematics and, after only eight or nine months of further study, another first in law.

Denning quickly shined in the legal profession and was called to the bar in 1923; "took silk" - became a King's Counsel - at 40, a high court judge five years later, and, in 1948, was appointed Lord Justice of Appeal.

In 1957 he became a law lord but stepped down from the highest court in 1962 to assume the post of the second most senior full-time judge - Master of the Rolls.

The last word

The Profumo investigation came a year later, and Lord Denning was propelled into the public consciousness.

His post allowed him to choose his own cases and the judges who were to sit with him. It meant in many cases he had the last word. He seemed to relish the attention and his reputation - some would say notoriety - grew with each out-spoken decree.

[ image: Lord Denning is a champion of the English countryside]
Lord Denning is a champion of the English countryside
His championing of the underdog, the common man, frequently pitted him against Parliament and law lords. Lord Denning thought himself entitled to circumvent, even change, any rule of law that stood in his way.

Lord Hailsham, as Lord Chancellor, said: "The trouble with Tom Denning is that he is always remaking the law, and we never know where we are."

His effect was to turn key principles of parliamentary supremacy and legal precedent on their head. But his pronouncements, characteristically set out in lucid, straight-forward prose, often led to new legislation or amendments by Parliament to the law.

In the 1980 Dimbleby lecture, he suggested ultimate control should rest with judges and the nation should rely on them to set aside any new legislation held to be unconstitutional.

Landmark judgements

In 1980, during the long steel strike, he ruled against the extension of the strike to private firms. The Lords reversed the decision.

He attacked the Greenham Common peace protesters and the Animal Liberation Front, claimed jury nobbling was a serious problem in the English courts and even questioned whether some immigrants should be allowed to sit on juries.

[ image: Now he mainly gets around on a motorised scooter]
Now he mainly gets around on a motorised scooter
He helped usher in competitive air travel by ruling Freddie Laker had the right to compete with British Airways on transatlantic routes.

His interventions on family law were ahead of the time. Lord Denning more or less invented the doctrine that a deserted wife was entitled to share her husband's property.

The controversy did not dim after his retirement in 1982. In 1990 he caused uproar with a claim that homosexuals should not be judges because they would be more open to blackmail.

He also suggested if the Birmingham Six had been hanged "we shouldn't have all these campaigns to get them released". He later said he had been quoted out of context.

Fire to frailty

He remained sprightly into his 90s, working as a vocal campaigner for local causes and even joining his neighbourhood watch scheme at 95. But lately the fire in his belly has died back. Lord Denning, the oldest peer in the House of Lords, is registered blind and relies on a hearing aid.

His second wife died a few years ago and he now has two residential nurses to assist him. He struggles to walk but makes occasional forays into the garden on a motorised buggy.

Lord Denning is now well into the twilight of his life, but he is assured that his legacy of law will endure for many years.

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