The head boy

As England's most senior judge, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham was at the centre of the Woolf reforms and is a keen advocate of the Human Rights Act. But, as Claire Smith discovers, there is still room for change.

The Lord Chief Justice strikes an impressive figure when he enters the room. Tall, slim and dressed in a dark suit and tie, at 66 years old he remains an imposing presence.

Tight-lipped and sporting thick dark-rimmed glasses, the father of three and twice grandfather does his best to hide a smile and bright blue eyes which threaten to undermine his serious exterior. Every so often the stern facade cracks – when asked what he thinks is the biggest problem facing the judiciary, he says with a smirk: "We're not paid enough – no, no, I'm only joking, sorry."

Thomas Bingham, England's most senior judge, on a par with the Lord Chancellor, was promoted from Master of the Rolls to his current position three years ago, the first to make the jump since Lord Alverstone in 1900. He had relatively little experience of the criminal courts before assuming the position as head of the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, and his appointment at the time was seen as unconventional.

His love of a challenge meant he was keen to tackle that role, while his reputation as a radical moderniser meant Bingham, who also heads the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, was only too pleased to find himself at the heart of the implementation of the Woolf reforms, the most revolutionary civil justice reforms this century.

"They are going extraordinarily well," he says, six months on from their introduction. "Despite the great planning I think I expected more disruption than has occurred. They have been extremely well received."

Keen on the changes from the start, Bingham describes himself as "a fervent advocate of alternative dispute resolution". He tells me he has a meeting with the Centre for Dispute Resolution (CEDR) that evening, and is bubbling with enthusiasm as he talks of his involvement with the centre, of which he is chairman of the advisory council.

He sees alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a way of lowering costs, prompting him to jump on the ADR bandwagon at an early stage when he met CEDR director Bill Marsh at a conference in Brussels in 1996.

Professor Karl Mackie, the chief executive of CEDR, says of Bingham: "He has been a great asset. His intellectual grasp of the issues is vast, and he takes a very hands-on approach."

But then Bingham has always shown a remarkable intellect. Unlike a lot of judges, he does not come from a legal family, but was born the son of two doctors in London in 1933. Excelling early, he became head boy at his secondary school and graduated with a first from Balliol College, Oxford, where he read history.

He moved on to study law and came top in his bar finals in 1959 before joining the legal chambers of Lord Scarman. Elevated to Queen's Counsel at the tender age of 38, he was appointed a Crown Court recorder just three years later. In 1980 he became a High Court judge and was knighted.

As Master of the Rolls from 1992, Bingham's reputation as a moderniser was spawned from his campaign for the introduction of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. In a debate at the 1992 Bar Conference he spoke alongside law professor Michael Zander QC to argue the case, and his success will be realised at the beginning of October next year.

He says that he is sure the judiciary will be well prepared for the changes. "I am quite sure that enormous efforts are being made and a great deal of planning is being done to try and be ready for 2 October next year.

"I hope that we shall avoid being overwhelmed but it is extremely difficult to predict what the increase in cases will be. The rights are described as revolutionary but when you actually go through the list these rights are not in themselves revolutionary.

"They are things that we think we have been doing for centuries, and I think we should be wary of assuming we have been doing things wrong when we have really been doing things well."

Zander, who lectures at the London School of Economics, says there is no doubt that Bingham's support helped the campaign. "Lord Bingham enjoys very widespread support, and his voice added to the weight of the argument.

"He's a very class act – excellent at everything he does. There were doubts at the time of his appointment that he did not have much experience of criminal law, but he has more than satisfied the doubters. He does a first rate job."

Two great successes have not dampened the Lord Chief Justice's drive for change. "I think that there is room for improving almost everything," he says with a wry smile. "I don't think any machine is incapable of being made to work better."

But change for change's sake is not on his agenda.

"I am an unashamed apologist of our judiciary, who are as good as any to be found anywhere in the world," he says.

And on the current hot potato of judicial appointments he adds: "Nobody to my mind has made a consuming case either that the wrong people are being appointed as judges or that there are people who should be judges who are not being appointed.

"A system that delivers such a high quality product cannot be nearly as defective as its critics suggest."

It seems the relationship with the judiciary is one of mutual admiration. The Sunday Times last year published a survey rating judges for popularity on the basis of lawyers' views, and Bingham came out top. Scoring 97 per cent, he was found to have impressed lawyers with his fairness, courtesy and swift decision-making.

One leading public law silk rates Bingham as one of the most influential people in his life. Michael Beloff QC, who is himself known as one of the stars at the bar, describes Bingham as a "role model extraordinaire".

Top barrister and member of the million-a-year club Gordon Pollock QC says: "He is a very popular lord chief justice – undoubtedly the leading lawyer of his generation. He is a brilliant after-dinner speaker. He's extremely well-read and his ability to weave in a relevant quotation is very good.

"He is very clever, very talented and he doesn't allow people to mess around. A delight to appear in front of. "

Everything you need to know about Lord Bingham in 160 words

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, born in 1933, was called to the bar in 1959 and nine years later became standing junior counsel to the Ministry of Labour, later to become the Department of Employment.

He was made a silk in 1972 and a recorder in 1975, and was appointed a judge of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court in 1980.

He achieved public prominence in 1977 when he was appointed by foreign secretary David Owen to investigate alleged breaches of sanctions against Rhodesia by UK companies.

In 1986 he was promoted to the Court of Appeal, and five years later he conducted another inquiry, this time into the demise of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).

In 1992 he succeeded Lord Donaldson of Lymington as Master of the Rolls.

In June 1996 he became Lord Chief Justice of England after Lord Taylor of Gosforth retired.

He is married with three children and enjoys brisk walks and modern art.