Losing Britain’s Greatest Modern Day Jurist

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Human rights activists and lawyers are mourning Lord Thomas Bingham of Cornhill who died on Saturday, 11 September, aged 76, following a struggle with cancer. A towering figure, many consider him to have been the foremost British jurist of the modern era.

Thomas Bingham

The son of two doctors, Thomas Bingham read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford and went on to pursue a career at the bar. Recognised as a formidable opponent in the courtroom (he was recently described by a senior barrister as having an ‘alpha-plus’ mind, and by other members of the judiciary as ‘frighteningly clever’), he quickly rose to prominence in the legal world, going on to hold the three top legal posts in the country; Master of the Rolls (1992-96), Lord Chief Justice (1996-2000) and senior Law Lord (2000-2008).

Known for being a staunch advocate of judicial independence and human rights, with a fiercely independent legal mind, he was never one to shy away from challenging the government. In the aftermath of 9/11, and throughout the ‘war on terror,’ his was a prominent voice amongst Law Lords standing against the excesses of the executive. Rejecting the British Government’s arguments relating to anti-terror legislation on numerous occasions, he stood firmly against the indefinite detainment of foreign nationals without charge and the use of evidence obtained by torture in what were highly influential and lengthy judgments that resonated around the world.

As a senior judge, Lord Bingham was instrumental in the introduction of the Human Rights Act (1996), which saw the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in to British domestic law. He was of the opinion that human rights were non-negotiable and regularly hit back at affronts to the system of due process.

His passion for the rights of individuals led him to champion in the higher most British court the cause of the Chagossians, who were forcefully removed by the British authorities (1968-1973) from their homeland of the Chagos Archipelago – a group of islands in the Indian Ocean – and dumped on the East Coast of Africa in order to make room for the construction of a massive US military base in Diego Garcia. In a minority opinion, Lord Bingham criticised the controversial use of the royal prerogative by the British government in order to justify its actions.

Whilst revered by the legal community as a judge of supreme intellect, he was also known for his warmth, kindness and humility, and for being able to connect with younger and non-legal audiences. His brilliantly received book, The Rule of Law (2010), was testament to his desire to make the law and legal institutions more accessible; it also made life that little bit easier for law students like myself.

Following his retirement in 2008 he gave a landmark speech in which he disputed the legality of the invasion of Iraq in what was seen as a major blow to the likes of Tony Blair. Viewing the invasion and subsequent occupation a ‘serious violation of international law,’ he eloquently dismantled Lord Goldsmith’s justifications for the war and accused Britain and the US of acting like a ‘World vigilante.’ He went on to argue that this was one of the very few matters on which he was ‘entirely free from legal doubt.’

Other issues he spoke out on towards the end of his life include the use of predatory drones – as used by the United States, the Israeli Defense Force and others – which he found intolerable. Deeming them ‘cruel as to beyond the pale of human tolerance,’ he compared them to cluster bombs and landmines.

Tributes were paid to him over the weekend by senior figures from within and outside the legal community. The charity Reprieve — famous for its advocacy for prisoner rights in such places as Guantanamo Bay — for which he served as chairman in his retired life, described him as

…truly inspirational. A brilliant lawyer, an exceptional judge, a staunch defender of the rule of law and a leading light in human right;, he was also impeccably kind and much beloved by those who knew him well. We were privileged that he served for a period as our Chair… Lord Bingham will continue to inspire generations of young lawyers, and all those who seek to make the world a better place.

Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti stated:

as long as people anywhere fight torture and slavery, treasure free speech, fair trials, personal privacy and liberty itself — Lord Bingham will be remembered.

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