The curse of Pinochet still casts a long shadow over the British legal system. Lord Browne-Wilkinson may prove to have been the first of its victims. It fell to the senior Law Lord to announce last December that Lord Hoffmann, a fellow Law Lord who had taken part in the original extradition appeal without disclosing his links to one of the parties, "was disqualified from sitting". A month later, Lord Browne-Wilkinson made the position clearer: Lord Hoffmann was "disqualified as a matter of law automatically by reason of his directorship of… a company controlled by a party, Amnesty International." Mysteriously, Lord Hoffmann did not take the hint and resign as a Law Lord. Lord Browne-Wilkinson apparently swallowed his feelings. The next time he wrote of the incident, he said merely that the first committee of Law Lords "was not properly constituted". While Lord Hoffmann worked energetically on his cases, Lord Browne-Wilkinson took off the whole of last term on doctor's orders. Who can say what impact the Pinochet debacle had on the senior Law Lord's health?
Lord Browne-Wilkinson will be back at work next month. But if he had not been well enough to return, who would have taken his place? In the normal course of events, Lord Slynn would move into his chair and everyone would go up one rung on the judicial ladder. But Lord Slynn will be 70 next year. There is increasing support in the Temple for the Lord Chancellor to look outside the ranks of serving Law Lords and bring back a reforming judge who, though appointed a Law Lord in the same year as Lord Slynn, is appreciably younger. Who? The Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf.
Next month Lord Woolf will take part in a case of great importance to the judiciary. He'll sit with Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, and Sir Richard Scott, the Vice-Chancellor, to decide when judges should stand down on grounds of conflict of interest. It's something on which Lord Woolf may have strong views: Pinochet's lawyers asked him not to sit as a Law Lord when the case was argued for the second time. An amicus has been appointed – a barrister who helps the court by setting out the issues without taking sides. He's David Lloyd Jones QC, who was also the amicus in the Pinochet case itself. Lord Hoffmann's conflict of interest in the Pinochet case has made this a key issue for the courts. There have been several appeals on the subject and these will be heard together next month. The judges are hoping for clear guidelines from this unusually strong division of the Court of Appeal.
The case that set the ball rolling involves Mr Justice Dyson, who now heads the Technology and Construction Court. The case was brought by Terry O'Callaghan, a regular gambler who is pursuing the bookmaking company Coral over a disputed bet. Mr Justice Dyson had only a minor role in the case, dismissing Mr O'Callaghan's request to seek judicial review out of time. But the judge is a non-executive director of a property investment company, set up by his parents and run by his brother. What he did not know at the time he heard Mr O'Callaghan's appeal was Coral was one of the company's tenants, contributing less than 5 per cent of the total rent received by the company.
The rules allow judges to remain directors of what are described as "family estates". But should they?
Joshua Rozenberg is the BBC's legal affairs correspondent. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org