Most Interesting, If I May Say So

Following up on posting about a recording of an interview with H.L.A. Hart, here’s another interview with a giant, Lord Denning. It is the Master of the Rolls’ appearance in 1980 on Desert Island Discs, a BBC talk show on which some interesting person is invited to talk about the 8 records (as well as a book and a luxury item) he or she would take along to a desert island, as well as life, the universe, and everything.

Lord Denning sounds every bit like you expect him to sound―the very model of an elderly, old-fashioned, perhaps a little cantankerous British gentleman. His musical choices are in character too, from “Greensleeves” to “Colonel Bogey” to “Land of Hope and Glory,” which he prefaces with a corny but, I am sure, sincere patriotic outburst about the “one country which we all love, which I love more than any,” and the assertion that “in all of my career I’ve always tried to stand up for the freedom of the individual against the executive or any great authority.”

In the meantime he talks about his life and career, serving in World War I, doing his law degree at Oxford in eight months, becoming a judge fairly quickly and rising to the House of Lords―and then going back to the Court of Appeal because there is more “fun” to be had there, but really, because there is more of a chance of ending up in the majority. In the House of Lords, he had “to be one of five, dissenting…  nobody takes notice of a dissenting judge.” And if Lords reversed one of his judgments in the Court of Appeal, well, “that doesn’t mean they’re right, you know!” Interestingly, in contrast to most of both American and Canadian judges who pronounce on the role of the judiciary, he is candid about his, and his court’s, role in changing the law, both “to keep the law in accordance with the needs of the time,” and as part of a”fight for what I think is just”―or both, sometimes, as in moving the law towards recognizing the equality of women (though “abandoned wives” doesn’t sound altogether egalitarian by today’s standards).

Although Lord Denning mentions a letter from a distraught law student to the Times asking him please not to change the law anymore until the exams are over, I am sure that he has helped many a first-year survive law school. Whatever their legal merits, his judgments are the highlight of any coursepack. He is probably what every law student would like to be―the defender of the widow and the orphan, of liberty and justice, the scourge of abuse of power and trickery, and a great raconteur to boot. If you are a little nostalgic for the good old days in his company, but don’t feel like getting out those contracts cases, just listen to this programme. It is, as he put it, “most interesting, if I may say so.”

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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