LORD BINGHAM: a great judge, a great man and a great friend to the Law Reports

Posted on 13th Sep 2010 in Judges

It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who died on 11 September. He was a great judge, with a formidable legal mind but with none of the arrogance, impatience or hauteur that sometimes afflicts those occupying judicial office. In fact he was a warm, witty and wise man, who strove without fear or favour to uphold the highest traditions of legal integrity and judicial independence.

As a public figure, he has and will continue to receive formal tributes in the public press: see eg obituaries in the Telegraph and Guardian.

But he was also known personally to many of us at the ICLR, as a judge who was always ready to help law reporters and who regularly supported ICLR events. Two in particular may be mentioned.

On Wednesday, 2 March 2005, he gave the fourth of the Law Reports Annual Lectures, entitled:

Of Good Report (discussing the change in style of law reporting which followed the establishment of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting in 1865)”

All who attended the event at Middle Temple Hall will recall it as a witty and entertaining display of erudition, by no means confined to the somewhat dry sounding subject matter of the title. In fact, it seemed to be more about American history than English jurisprudence (and none the worse for that, dare one say):

When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, the Confederate States faced one heavy disadvantage. They had no navy, no ships and no shipyards.”

You can read on, and see what all this had to do with law reporting, in the report of the lecture in the ICLR Newsletter (Summer 2005, pp 7-9).

More recently, in January 2007 he helped launch the BUSINESS LAW REPORTS with a speech that combined self-deprecating humour with astute observation and, like a good judgment, said what needed to be said with clarity and relevance. As an example of his helpfulness and support for the ICLR, it is worth reproducing in full:

Chairman, Editor, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am that versatile and ubiquitous sportsman, A N Other, stepping in between these two grand fellows, the Chairman and the Editor. But as is the case fairly frequently with A N Other, my innings will be a mercifully short one.

We’re here, of course, as the Chairman has already said, to celebrate this great new publishing venture. But it’s more, I think, than just a publishing venture. Because I think it has the potential of making a real contribution to the effective and fruitful conduct of business and finance and commerce in this country and the City of London in particular.

One recalls the father of commercial law, Lord Mansfield, observing “In all mercantile transactions” he famously said, “the great object should be certainty. And therefore, it is of more consequence that a rule should be certain than whether [it] is established one way or the other. Because speculators in trade then know what ground to go upon.” [See Vallejo v Wheeler (1774) 1 Cowp 143, 153.]

But it is of course no use the law being certain and wise and wonderful unless it is readily accessible to those with no time to visit the library of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies but with a client and a problem on the other end of a telephone. And the great boon as I see it of this new series is that it would not trouble those engaged in advising on business transactions with the arcane niceties of wills and bona vacantia and treasure trove, or about the intent necessary for rape or the legality of control orders or the duties of the Parole Board. But what it will do is keep business practitioners in touch with developments affecting the conduct of business in this country today. And I think that all of us should be ready to congratulate the Chairman and the Editor on the attractiveness as well as the selectiveness and choice evident in the first issue and to express our fervent hope that everybody with an interest in this area will recognise this new series as something they can’t live another week without.

So with that, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps I — I didn’t know I was launching anything — but perhaps we can launch it, and then invite the editor to tell us what it’s all really about.

[Raises his glass]: The Business Law Reports.
[Applause.]”

If one were to make any editorial correction with hindsight, it would be to change that ironic “mercifully” to “tragically”. He was 76 when he died.