Obituary: Lord Bingham, KG, PC, Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice in England
Lord Bingham of Cornhill, KG, PC, Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice in England. Born 13 October, 1933, in Yorkshire. Died 11 October, 2010, in Wales, aged 76.
HE HAD one of the most eminent legal minds of his generation and achieved the highest offices in the profession. Thomas Bingham was acknowledged to hold a most detailed grasp of all aspects of the law and was keen to make it workable in contemporary society. He was much revered throughout the profession - one colleague called Bingham, "frighteningly clever" - yet he preserved a courteous and even-handed approach to everyone.
Bingham, who was exceptionally fair and questioned witnesses politely, never harangued council at the many inquiries over which he presided. He diplomatically upheld the rule of law against any intrusions from the legislature or government.
This independence was manifested in 1989 when he strongly supported Lord Mackay of Clashfern, then Lord Chancellor of England, in his reforms of the legal system. In particular, Bingham agreed with Mackay's proposal to stop the Bar's monopoly to appear as advocates in the High Court.
Many of his colleagues spoke out ruefully against Bingham, but he countered with typical lucidity by accusing the Bar members of "doom, decline and decay" and said that Lord Mackay's proposals weakened none of the pillars on which the justice system rests.
"We delude ourselves," Bingham poignantly concluded, "if we do not suppose there is not a large body of responsible, middle-of-the-road opinion that regards the legal profession as riddled with anachronistic conventions and privileges." Bingham appealed to his legal colleagues: "Let us not launch a hue and cry against phantoms that do not exist."
The son of a Protestant Ulsterman, Thomas Henry Bingham - known outside the courts affectionately as Tom - grew up in Surrey where his parents were doctors. He won a scholarship to Sedbergh, where he became head boy. After school, he immediately did his National Service with the Royal Ulster Rifles and went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he got a first in Modern History. He did not pursue an academic career but read for the Bar and passed out top of the Bar exams in 1959. At just 38, Bingham took Silk and proved an able and persuasive advocate.
In a noted case in 1974, Bingham was instructed by the then foreign secretary, David Owen, to head the politically charged inquiry into allegations of breaches, by UK companies, of United Nations trade sanctions against Rhodesia. Bingham's carefully-worded report caused a sensation, concluding that the oil companies had broken the sanctions knowingly with the complicity of British civil service.Bingham's reputation grew and after several further appointments he was promoted to the Court of Appeal in 1986.
In 1991, he chaired the inquiry into the ignominious collapse of Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). It was acomplex case demanding a clear understanding of convoluted money transactions worldwide. Bingham delivered a no-holds barred report that included a scathing indictment of the Bank of England's "deficient" supervision of the fraud-riddled BCCI. He observed that the Bank had showed a "marked lack of curiosity" and that there had been "a tragedy of errors, misunderstandings and failures of communication".
In 1992, Bingham was appointed Master of the Rolls and, with typical foresight, called for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law - which, in fact, followed in 1998. Four years later, Bingham and seven Law Lords decided that to detain foreign terrorist suspects indefinitely without charge contravened that very law.
When, in 1996, Bingham became Lord Chief Justice some judges thought he lacked experience in criminal law and tried to block the appointment. Lord Mackay, never one to be deterred on such occasions, convinced Margaret Thatcher that Bingham would be an ideal Lord Chief Justice: which he was. Once again, he displayed his independence when he criticised the government over their decision to impose mandatory sentences.
In 2008, after standing down as the senior law officer, he caused further controversy when he said that, in his opinion, Lord Goldsmith's advice to Tony Blair on Britain's 2003 invasion of Iraq was "flawed". He argued it was up to the UN Security Council to decide whether Iraq had failed to comply with the resolution.
Bingham studiously preserved a non-political stance on social and legal matters. In truth, he did not posses a politician's way of thinking. He once said: "I'd be a terrible politician; I've never agreed with a single party long enough."
Another matter that brought him into prominence came in 2003 when he stood for election as Chancellor of Oxford University. He lost to the former Conservative minister Chris Patten.
Bingham was never superior or aloof. No matter how distinguished the company he was always, on social occasions, Tom. He preserved a convivial and courteous manner to everyone and was a delightful concoction of deep intellect, great integrity, total humanity and blessed with a wonderful sense of humour.
Bingham had maintained a cottage in Wales for many years where he walked and enjoyed the peace. He was president of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and was scheduled to address the Edinburgh Book Fair this month after the publication of The Rule of Law. Unfortunately, that had to be cancelled as he was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
In 2005 Bingham, who held many honorary doctorates, was the first judge to be made a Knight of the Garter. He married, in 1963, Elizabeth Loxley.She survives him as do their two sons and a daughter.
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