ALFRED THOMPSON -DENNING
Alfred Thompson Denning Facts
Lord Alfred Thompson Denning (1899-1999) was a Populist English judge whose career spanned 37 years. He was known as a fighter for the underdog and a protector of the little man’s rights against big business. He served for 20 years as the head of the Court of Appeals, one of the most influential positions in the English legal system. Denning was a controversial judge who was often the dissenting voice on the bench. His decisions were based more on his religious and moral beliefs than the letter of the law and he was often criticized for his subjectivity. Denning retired from the bench in 1982 under a cloud of controversy regarding some racially insensitive views that he published. Denning continued to publish books during his retirement and died at the age of 100.
Alfred Thompson (Tom) Denning was born on January 23, 1899, at Whitchurch in Hampshire, England. He was the youngest child of five born to Charles Denning and Clara Thompson. His father owned a draper’s shop and his mother did the bookkeeping for the business. Denning attended elementary school at Whitchurch and then joined two of his brothers at Andover Grammar School. Denning excelled in both English and mathematics and won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Oxford.
After one year at Oxford, Denning was called to military service in the summer of 1917. He served a year and a half on the Western Front in the 151st Field Company of the Royal Engineers and then returned to his education. In 1920 Denning graduated First Class in mathematics. He then taught for a year at a prominent public school. However, as Jowell and McAuslan described in Lord Denning: The Judge and the Law, “he was ambitious and desired to be a man amongst men.” Denning returned to Oxford on another scholarship and graduated First Class in the law school in 1922.
From the Bar to the Bench
In 1923 Denning was called to the Bar and began working in private practice. His early career consisted mainly of small civil work, such as landlord disputes and traffic accidents. Denning also began writing at this time. He published two articles in the Law Quarterly Review and co-edited a book on prominent common law cases.
Denning married Mary Harvey, the daughter of the Vicar of Whitchurch, in 1932 and the couple had one son, Robert, who eventually became a professor of chemistry at Oxford University. In 1941 his wife died and Denning remarried four years later. His second wife, Joan Elliot Stuart, was a widow with three children who remained married to Denning until her death in 1992.
After fifteen years of private practice, Denning became king’s counsel in 1938. When World War II broke out, he volunteered as a legal adviser to the Regional Commissioner of the North-East Region. After the war, he was appointed judge to the Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty Division.
He was not very enthusiastic about the appointment because he considered divorce work inferior to other kinds of legal practice. However, he accepted the position with the hope that it would further his career. He was 45 years old when he started working as a judge.
In October 1945 Denning was transferred to the King’s Bench Division and became the Chairman of the Committee on Procedure in Matrimonial Causes. Three years later Denning was promoted to the Court of Appeals. Initially the court only handled civil appeals until criminal cases were allowed in 1967. Denning’s career, however, focused mainly on civil matters.
During the 1950s Denning began to earn a reputation for his controversial judgements, which were often at odds with the opinions of the other judges on the Court of Appeals. Despite the tension in the courtroom, Denning found the work to be very satisfying.
On April 24, 1957, he was appointed to fill a vacancy among the Law Lords. The pace of the work was much slower in his new position and he did not enjoy the work as much as the appeals court. Five years later an opportunity arose for Denning to return to the Court of Appeals.
The Master of the Rolls, the head of the Court of Appeals, wanted to step down because of the administrative burden of the position and Denning was appointed to take his place. Denning retained this role for 20 years until his retirement.
A year after being appointed Master of the Rolls, Denning heard a high profile case that bolstered his popularity among the general public. In 1963 he was assigned to investigate a sex scandal involving Secretary of State John D. Profumo.
Profumo had had an affair with a young woman who was also involved with a Russian intelligence officer. Even though Denning did not find evidence that government secrets were compromised, his report on the Profumo Affair became a best-seller. Denning supplied the public with the racy details of the scandal and 10,000 copies of the report sold in two days.
He also publicly criticized the Prime Minister for not properly handling the situation. A month after the publication was released, the conservative British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned. While the public enjoyed reading about the scandal, many of Denning’s colleagues believed that the level of detail in the report and the “gossipy” style were unprofessional.
Denning was a deeply religious man who allowed his personal ethics to influence his judgements. He was president of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and he noted that the book he read most often was the Bible.
He had a strong view of what justice meant and achieving justice was more important to him than statutes or previous rulings. According to The Lawyer, Denning once said, “Unlike my brother judge here, who is concerned with the law, I am concerned with justice.”
This was more than just a philosophy for Denning, but rather was a way of life. In a 1974 speech entitled Let Justice Be Done, Denning concluded, “In our society, if we are to maintain civilization as we know it, it is essential that each one of us does all he can to ‘Let Justice Be Done.”‘
Despite such noble intentions, the subjectivity of Denning’s decisions made him the target of much professional criticism. To respond to the controversy surrounding many of his decisions, Denning published The Discipline of Law in 1979 when he was 80 years old. In this book he explained that the law was outdated and it was up to judges to shape it to fit contemporary needs.
Though Denning was often the dissenting opinion on rulings, he nonetheless introduced important changes to the legal system. Denning impacted the language of the law through his emphasis on using simple sentences to communicate legal issues so that lay people could understand the law.
He tried to communicate his points in a clear, direct manner and often liked to present facts in the form of a story. Many of his decisions were also of historic importance.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, “He went on to build a reputation as the champion of the underdog, with decisions protecting individuals from exploitation by bureaucrats, large companies, and trade unions.”
In particular, he upheld the idea that oral contracts could be binding and he introduced the Mareva injunction, which freezes assets during litigation. Another notable decision was allowing Sir Freddie Laker the right to operate a transatlantic airline to New York, introducing competition to British Airways and sharply reducing the price of air travel across the Atlantic.
Denning also fought for the property rights of deserted wives and unmarried women. His judgements in these cases were not always upheld and many men wrote to him objecting to his interference in what was considered a personal matter.
In a speech presented in 1959 for the Eleanor Rathbone Memorial Lecture entitled The Equality of Women, Denning elaborated his views on women in society. “There is no question of retracing our steps about the equality of women, nor would anyone wish to do so. If women are able to live up to the responsibilities which freedom entails, their equality is not only a matter of absolute justice, but is also capable of great benefits to the human race; and of all their responsibilities, the chief is to maintain a sound and healthy family life in the land.”
Denning fell out of professional and public favor during his last two years on the bench. He was sharply criticized by members on the House of Commons. To make matters worse, he offended black lawyers and judges with a ruling on a case involving a riot in Bristol when he asserted that the accused were acquitted because of black members on the jury.
In Lord Denning: The Man and His Times, Jowell and McAuslan quote a 1980 article from the Cambrian Law Journal in which the author pointedly stated, “We are witnessing the tragic drama of a great judge whose acute sense of rightness has become a conviction of righteousness, whose consciousness of the need for justice has led him to become a self-appointed arbiter in the politics of society and whose desire to draw attention to defects in our law has noticeably drawn attention to himself.”
Jowell and McAuslan went on to clarify that, “But whatever criticisms were made of the substance or style of the judgement of the Master of the Rolls, nobody doubted that his physical capacities to preside over his court were unaffected by his years.”
In 1982 Denning published another book called What Next in the Law. The book outraged the Society of Black Lawyers because some passages questioned the capacity of Blacks to serve as jurors. There was such controversy over the book that the publishing company had to recall it, change the offensive passages, and then republish it.
In addition, some black jurors from the 1981 Bristol riots trial threatened to sue Denning for libel. Amidst the controversy, Denning resigned from his position as Master of the Rolls on September 30, 1982, citing “advanced age” as the reason for his decision. According to The New York Times, Denning explained “I want to go while I’m still at my peak.”
Denning continued to work after retirement writing three more books including The Closing Chapter, which gives his account of the events leading to his retirement. At the age of 88 Denning was still active and even tried a small pro bono case regarding private property in Andover.
In 1997 Denning was appointed by the Queen of England to the elite Order of Merit. Denning died on March 5, 1999, at the age of 100 in Winchester, England. He was a prolific writer and an influential judge who significantly impacted the legal system during his tenure.
Despite the controversy he generated with his legal rulings, personal style, and sometimes inappropriate remarks, Denning was a well respected lawyer and one of the best known judges of his time.
Denning, Alfred, The Discipline of Law, Butterworth, 1979.
Denning, Alfred, The Equality of Women, Liverpool University Press, 1960.
Denning, Alfred, The Family Story, Butterworth, 1981.
Denning, Alfred, Leaves from My Library: An English Anthology, Butterworth, 1986.
Denning, Alfred, Let Justice Be Done, Birbeck College, 1974.
Jowell, L.L., and J.P.W.B. McAuslan, Lord Denning: The Judge and the Law, Sweet and Maxwell Limited, 1984.
Justice Lord Denning and the Constitution, edited by P. Robson and P. Watchman, Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1981.
Daily Telegraph, March 6, 1999.
Financial Times, March 6, 1999.
Independent, March 6, 1999.
Lawyer, December 20, 1999.
New York Times, March 6, 1999.
Times, August 2, 1987; November 26, 1997.
Washington Post, March 7, 1999.
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