Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who died earlier this month at the age of 76, will be remembered by barristers and lawyers alike as the greatest English judge of the past century. He will also be fondly remembered by his friends at Fountain Court for his brilliant advocacy skills and mischievous sense of humour.
“Tom Bingham was known for his superb intellect and his outstanding abilities as a judge,” says head of chambers Tim Dutton. “He was a towering figure in the law. His many friends in chambers also remember him as a man of great kindness and warmth with a wry and engaging sense of humour.”
Bingham joined 2 Crown Office Row, later to become Fountain Court, after gaining a first in History from Balliol College in Oxford.
He quickly established himself as an intellectual force at the bar and built up a strong following, with clients including the Department of Employment and the Bank of England.
Dutton recalls how he spent a summer working for Slaughter and May before joining the bar. His partner instructed Bingham to advise on a case involving a stretched hovercraft, with complex contractual arrangements and cost overruns.
“About a dozen of us trooped into a room,” Dutton remembers. “Tom undertook a crisp and utterly clear conference which left us in no doubt that the case – on which we’d been working for weeks – was a loser.
His exposition was so clear and compelling that no one doubted he was right. The whole conference was over in 20 minutes and any doubts I had about wanting to be a barrister were dispelled by Tom.”
Anthony Boswood QC was a junior at Fountain Court while Bingham was still a member. He says: “As a member of chambers he was extremely kind and thoughtful to the young. He was the only person, for example, actually to pay pupils other than his own for doing paperwork for him.”
In court, says Boswood, Bingham was brief in his statements. “He said it once, and that was it,” he recalls. “This technique obviously worked best before clever judges. Hence he was at his best in the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords. Such was his air of authority that, having heard him say it once, judges seemed to doubt that any other conclusion or view was possible.”
While he was a fashionable and forthright silk, Bingham’s career at the bench will be more widely remembered. In 1975 he became a recorder of the Supreme Court and five years later he joined the High Court bench.
Bingham was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1986 before being appointed as the Master of the Rolls in 1992.
Many thought of him at the time as being a conservative judge, inclined to shy away from reform. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Bingham was one of the more radical and independently minded members of the judiciary.
As Lord Chief Justice he fought for the Government to invest in a Supreme Court to separate the House of Lords from its political counterpart. This was a battle he won in 2005, although he retired before he could be appointed as its new president – a position he would have liked.
Speaking in 2004 Bingham gave his view on the judiciary, saying: “The function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state – a cornerstone of the rule of law itself.”
Bingham firmly believed in human rights, which is also something he will be remembered for. Lives across the UK are better off because of his judgments.