In an entertaining and televised speech to the Society of Editors, Paul Dacre, the editor of The Daily Mail, made some thoughtful points.
He complained about the erosion of press freedom by the courts.
Frank enough to observe that the suppression of sexy stories led to a significant drop in newspaper sales, Dacre cited Baroness Brenda Hale in the Naomi Campbell case:
“One reason why freedom of the press is so important is that we need newspapers to sell in order to ensure that we still have newspapers at all. It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.”
Dacre took a swipe at lawyers and their conditional fees and told a disturbing story about an MP called Martin Jones who sued the Mail on Sunday for libel.
The paper claimed the MP had sworn at a Commons official.
“The Mail on Sunday,” said Dacre (pic) “believed it had rock-solid witnesses and decided to fight the case. In the event, they lost and were ordered to pay £5,000 in damages.
“The MP’s lawyers claimed costs of £387,855 – solicitor’s costs of £68,340, plus 100 per cent success fees, barrister’s costs of £63,250, plus 100 per cent success fees, VAT and libel insurance of £68,250. Associated’s costs were £135,987 making a total of £520,000 costs in a case that awarded damages of just £5,000 in a dispute over a simple matter of fact.”
This was all good stuff from Dakes.
But the nub of his speech was an intemperate personal attack on the Mosely judge, Sir David Eady.
He described his Lordship’s judgments as “arrogant and amoral”.
It didn’t go down well with the legal profession. What grated most was the knowledge that the judge was unable to defend himself.
Things have now blown over but Dacre has been left looking a bit like a chump.
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One judge who is no longer shackled by the silence of judicial office is the former Senior Law Lord, Thomas (Call me Tom) Bingham.
In a speech last week, which caused a touch of feather-ruffling, the retired judge said that Britain violated “international law and the rule of law” by supporting the US invasion of Iraq.
He said it was “not plain that Iraq had failed to comply in a manner justifying resort to force and there were no strong factual grounds or hard evidence to show that it had”.
The man who used to be known as “The Lawyers’ Lawyer” then as “The Judges’ Judge” was not making a political case. Ultimately, Tony Blair’s judgment was political.
But then Lord Bingham has never been a politician. When he ran unsuccessfully for the post of Chancellor of Oxford University in 2003 he told a journalist in a res ipsa moment:
“One really has no idea how to sell oneself.”
* * *
Thomas Henry Bingham (seen here) was born in 1933 and retired in September this year. It a gross understatement to say his career was distinguished.
He was a premier league silk, a High Court judge, a Lord Justice of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the Senior Law Lord.
Of course, to get that far, one needed lead in one’s pencil.
In 2003, Lord Bingham told The Times he remembered climbing Mont Blanc:
“We discovered some climbers who had been lying in a crevasse for several days. We had to decide whether to help them or go to the top and retrieve them on the way down. We did the latter. I suppose I can be ruthless.”
In addition to his peerless technical skill, Lord Bingham was a judge with a modern approach.
At an informal press conference in 1999, he said that if the judges had not moved with the times men would still be asserting a common law right to rape their wives and beat their children.
“The difficult question is whether any particular court has got ahead of public opinion. I don’t think that in any case decided in this country they have.”
He also had erudite common sense.
In dismissing the government’s appeal in the Spycatcher case, the former history first said:
“The court will not seek to emulate a fifteenth century pope who issued a papal bull against Halley’s Comet … Most of the great works of the French enlightenment were for good reason published outside France. But the Bastille still fell.”
* * *
Lord Bingham played the central part in the establishment of the new Supreme Court which sets up shop in October next year.
He had also been overseeing the development of the building that will house the court, the Middlesex Guildhall (seen here).
However, like Moses, who looked down from the mountain top, it is a tragedy that statutory senility will prevent him from ever living in the Promised Land.
In a speech last week to the United Kingdom Supreme Court Conference, Lord Hope of Craighead spoke of a visit that he and other Law Lords made to the Guildhall in May 2004.
The general feeling was that the building was quite unsuitable and the gloomy interior was made even gloomier by a gathering thunderstorm.
Things began badly and there was much confusion caused by the politicians. The project has now cost over £70 million.
Like any modern building, the Guildhall is bound to have gently sloped wheelchair access, panic alarms and fresh mountain water points.
Lord Hope paid tribute to the work done by his chief in instilling some sense into what was going on.
How far did the Senior Law Lord go?
Remember Gar Bar in his safety helmet and pin-striped suit touring the construction site of the High Court in Canberra?
Such a building, he pronounced, should express the majesty of the law and impart a sense of strength and security. The visitor should be made to feel aware of the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the Australian judicial system.
But when it came to any specialist building, said Hands-On Gar, you had to watch an architect like a cat watching a mouse.
David Marr in Barwick (Allen & Unwin, 1992), tells the story of Justice McTiernan (pic), then 84, and Chief Justice Barwick walking one day in Melbourne when a cricket ball landed in front of them.
McTiernan tried to kick it away and broke his hip. He ended up in a wheelchair.
Mc Tiernan wanted to remain on the bench but Barwick refused to install a ramp.
Eddie had to retire.
* * *
The Law Lords were not given the luxury of building from scratch.
Initially, Lord Hope was worried of a lasting impression that the Law Lords had been crudely thrust into a building designed for another purpose.
However, it seems things are now looking up and the Guildhall will be a source of judicial pride.
And it’s quite an irony that the new Supreme Court once contained the Chapel of the Holy Innocents into which hunted criminals claiming sanctuary were given entry without hindrance (see: Lawyers’ London, by A. Goodman, Blackstone Press 2000).
* * *
In his last decision, Lord Bingham delivered the leading judgment for the House of Lords in the case of a woman and her twelve year old son who were seeking asylum in Britain.
Islamic law required that when the boy reached seven he had to be placed in the custody of his father or a male member of the family. They live in Lebanon.
During the woman’s marriage, the husband had beaten her, attempted to throw her off a balcony, tried to strangle her and ended her first pregnancy by thumping her stomach with a heavy vase.
Her application for asylum was rejected by the Home Office, an immigration judge and the Court of Appeal.
Lord Bingham let her stay.
* * *
In his memorial address at the service for the life of Lord Denning, Tom Bingham said:
“There was little in the law which … he did not touch; and little that he touched which he did not adorn.”
So may it be said of him.
* * *
The final word this week should go to former boy soprano, Aled Jones (snap), who hosts a Sunday morning programme on BBC Radio 2.
He was interviewing an Irish mock-opera band called The Priests (Da Prastes.)
First voice: “My name is Father Martin O’Hagan. This is my brother Father Eugene O’Hagan and this is Father David Delargy”.
Aled: “Now let’s start at the beginning. How did you guys first meet then?”
Father Martin: “Well, Eugene and I are brothers and …”
Aled is Welsh.