Lord Denning (1899—1999): An Appreciation -- By: John Warwick Montgomery
Lord Denning (1899—1999):
Barrister member of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn (Lord Denning’s Inn of Court) and Hon. Vice-President, Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship.
Originally appeared in FAITH & THOUGHT: The Journal of the Victoria Institute or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, No. 26 (October 1999), pp. 3-5.
Tom Denning was unquestionably the greatest and most influential English judge of the second half of the 20th century. What accounts for his stature, admitted not only by his friends and supporters but also by his critics (cf. Jowell & McAuslan, Lord Denning: the Judge and the Law )?
The impact of his legal decisions, to be sure. Lord Woolf put it thus in an interview following on Lord Denning’s demise: “Until his time, on the whole it was the great criminal cases that caught the public imagination. With him, for the first time, it was the civil cases, because he was projecting the little man against the big battalions.”
Perhaps the most significant of the decisions (Denning himself thought so) was the High Trees case which, together with many later Denning decisions, established the doctrine of “equitable estoppel”—that when a party reasonably relies upon the promise of another, the latter will be bound by that promise without more () KB 130). Historically, the English common law (unlike virtually all other legal systems) has required “consideration”—a legal detriment of the part of the promisor—to make such promises enforceable. Denning successfully advocated what he called “the better precept”: “My word is my bond”, irrespective of whether there is consideration to support it (Denning, The Discipline of Law , p. 223).
The literary style characteristic of Denning’s judgements and of his extensive extrajudicial writings goes far to explain their effectiveness. Not for him the convoluted, dry technical jargon typical of the legal professional. As Heward says in the second edition of his bibliography of Denning (1997), “the central principle of his style is that…you should always be thinking of the reader or the hearer. He is a good storyteller” (p. 189). Examples: “Old Peter Berwick was a coal merchant in Eccles, Lancashire. He had no business premises. All he had was a lorry, scales and weights…” (Berwick v Berwick  Ch. 538). “It happened on April 19, 1964. It was bluebell time in Kent “(Hinz v Berry  2 QB 40,42). One is reminded of C.S. Lewis, who spoke and wrote theological apologetics not as technical theology, but in a style which would communicate with, and interest, the man on the Clapham omnibus.
Tom Denning was unafraid of controversy and ins...
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