Known as "Tom" to those familiar with him, Denning was born in Whitechurch, a small community west of London. He lost his eldest brother in the First World War.

Alfred Denning himself, as Lieutenant Denning of the 151st Field Company of the Royal Engineers, was sent to defend Paris, France in April of 1918, as part of the 38th Welsh Division, where he saw action.

Lawyer since 1923 (Lincoln's Inn) and a judge since 1944. His first appointment was as a divorce court judge. In 1948, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal and in 1957, he was promoted to the House of Lords, England's version of a supreme court.

One of Denning's many innovations was to press for the publication of dissenting opinions. Since 1627, the Privy Council of the House of Lords did not issue dissenting opinions. Denning raised the point again and again until 196, when the publication of dissenting opinions was allowed.

Lord DenningDenning's tenure in the House of Lords was tedious to Denning. He once wrote:

"To most lawyers on the bench, the House of Lords is like heaven - you want to get there someday - but not while there is any life in you."

In 1962, he was appointed Master of the Rolls, senior judge of the Court of Appeals, a position he held until 1982.

Denning objected to the in camera nature of 90 per cent of matters before the Court of Appeal.

Denning gained prominence in appointed to investigate a sex scandal that rocked the British government in the early 60s.

He endeared himself to the public by the simplicity of his legal decisions, of which over 2,000 were published (which lawyers called reported as in published in law reports). Although many of his decisions as a judge were controversial, he is considered to be one of the most influential judges in the history of English common law, particularly in the area of contract law.

Most notably, he supported efficiency improvements in the process and substance of the law. His ever-ready reliance on common sense, if not the common law, pushed the law to modernize, although it did cause more than a few judges to whisper the word maverick or judicial activist in his regard.

The theory of common law is that judges are free to restate the law, but not to change it. But Denning once admitted that:

"I prefer to straighten out the law here and now."

Tom Denning did not know when to quit, sitting into his 84th year, in spite of increasing demands for his retirement. He still holds the record for longest tenure on the bench for an English judge: 38 years.

He died just six weeks after his 100th birthday.

REFERENCES:

  • Candler v Crane Christmas (1954) 2 KB 164
  • Denning, Alfred, The Closing Chapter (London: Butterworths, 1983).
  • Denning, Alfred, The Family Story (London: Buterworths, 1981).
  • Dyer, C., Lord Denning, Controversial 'People's Judge', Dies Aged 100, The Guardian Newspaper, 6 MAR 1999
  • Heward, E., Lord Denning: A Biography (Chichester: Barry Rose Law Publishers Ltd., 1997).
  • High Trees Case (1947) 1 KB 130
  • James v Minister of Pensions (1947) 1 KB 867
  • Jowell, J. and McAuslan, Lord Denning: the Judge and the Law (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1984)