In memory of Lord Bingham

26 May 2011
Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer

Thanksgiving services are always moving, but I’ve never been to one quite like the service in Westminster Abbey for Tom Bingham last night. Among the enormous crowd were family, friends, royalty, politicians and judges, as well as a strong contingent of Liberty staff. The service gave a touching picture of his family life and love for music and literature, as well as the stellar judicial career we are more familiar with.

Lord Bingham was the first judge in modern times to be appointed as both master of the rolls and as lord chief justice. He was then the first to hold the official post of “senior law lord”, from 2000 to 2008 when he retired – just on the point of the creation of the new Supreme Court which he had long argued for. He was therefore the most senior judge in the country at a time of growing executive power and an increasingly authoritarian government – in particular following the terror attacks in the United States in 2001 and in London in 2005. His willingness to stand up to these forces and defend human rights in difficult times is something for which we should all be eternally grateful.

There are countless judgments of Lord Bingham’s which have shaped the law and will continue to be cited as authoritative expressions of legal principle for decades, if not centuries, to come. The two “A” judgments are arguably the most significant. In the first he held that the internment of foreign terror suspects in Belmarsh prison was discriminatory and in breach of the right to liberty. In the second he ruled that evidence obtained by torture was not admissible in legal proceedings. Both involved forensic legal analysis, but also courage and an unwavering belief in the rule of law.

Giving the keynote speech at Liberty’s 75th Anniversary Conference he expressed dismay that anyone would seek to remove or weaken such fundamental rights as the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial

“Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British? There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not of their number.”

This deep commitment to fundamental principles of individual liberty, fair treatment and the rule of law made him one of the most significant figures of our time and we are honoured to have known him.