Alfred Denning, Baron Denning

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Alfred Thompson Denning, Baron Denning (23 January, 18996 March, 1999) was a British barrister from Hampshire who became Master of the Rolls (the senior civil judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) and was generally well liked, both within the legal profession and outside it. Lord Denning was a judge for 38 years, retiring at the age of 83 in 1982.


Early History

Born Alfred Thompson Denning in Whitchurch in Hampshire in the UK, Denning was the fourth of five sons of Charles Denning and his wife Clara. Denning's father was a draper. His mother had been a school teacher. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, after which he taught mathematics at Winchester College before returning to study law at Magdalen, where he was later made an honorary fellow. He trained at Lincoln's Inn, and was later a bencher of the Inn. He was called to the English bar in 1923, and was appointed a High Court judge and knighted in 1944. Only four years later he was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal as well as a Privy Counsellor, and in 1957 he became a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary with a life peerage as Baron Denning, of Whitchurch in the County of Southampton. He also served as Master of the Rolls from 1962 to 1982, later receiving the Order of Merit in 1997 in recognition of his distinguished career. He first married in 1932. His wife Mary died nine years later. He remarried in 1945 to Joan, who died in 1992.

He became well known for his judgments, which frequently pushed the law in novel directions. Even in his early career his decision in the now world renowned High Trees case: Central London Property Trust Ltd v. High Trees House Ltd [1947] K.B. 130 brought him into the forefront of judicial reasoning for his innovative approach to legal reasoning when he developed the principle of equitable estoppel as applied to contract law. Today, Denning is one of the few English jurists whose opinions are still cited and studied on both sides of the Atlantic.

Legal Career

Denning spent twenty years as the Master of the Rolls, presiding over the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal, after five years as a Law Lord, shifting to the Court of Appeal at his request because he was happier with that post than a post in the more senior court. Court of Appeal judges sit in threes, and the Lords in fives (or more) so it was suggested that to get his way in the Court of Appeal Denning only had to persuade one other judge - in the House of Lords it was two. The other benefit of the Court of Appeal is that it hears more cases than the House of Lords and so has a greater effect on the law. During his 20 years as Master of the Rolls, he could choose his own cases and the judges who were to sit with him. So on most issues, he effectively had the last word. Not many cases went on to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court of law. Of his move down the legal hierarchy, Denning quipped, "To most lawyers on the bench, the House of Lords is like heaven. You want to get there someday - but not while there is any life in you". The last sitting UK judge not bound by a mandatory retirement age, he was forced to retire after remarks interpreted as racially insensitive though generally understood not to have indicated such feelings.

His 1982 book What Next in the Law was his downfall. In it, he seemed to suggest some black people were unsuitable to serve on juries. His remarks followed a trial over a riot in Bristol. Two jurors on the case threatened to sue him. Lord Denning backed down and avoided further conflict by apologising. He then announced he would be retiring.


Template:Wikiquote Whatever the truth of it, Lord Denning became immensely popular for his judgments which often bent the law into interesting directions, and his unusual prose style in giving judgment.

Examples of some opening lines, or opening paragraphs, from Denning's judgments can be found on wikiquote.

Death and Legacy

Many of Denning's efforts to change the law were vindicated by the passage of time (and legislation) — in particular, his efforts to establish an abandoned wives' equity, small print exemption clauses, inequality of bargaining power, negligent mis-statement, liability of public authorities, and contractual interpretation.

He died a few months after celebrating his 100th birthday. Denning was too frail to attend his own 100th birthday party: at the event, Law Society President Michael Matthews said, "He was a towering figure in the law who made an enormous contribution to the law of this century, probably the major contribution". Eulogising Denning's death, a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, said that Denning would go down in history as "one of the great and controversial judges of the 20th century".

See also


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