It was with great sadness that the members and staff of Fountain Court learned of the death of Tom Bingham at his home in the Welsh Marches on 11 September.
If one person is to be singled out as being responsible for the emergence of Fountain Court as a leading commercial set it is Tom Bingham. Graduating with a First in Modern History from Balliol College, Oxford in 1957, and coming top in Bar Finals, he joined Fountain Court Chambers (then located in Crown Office Row) in 1959. He soon established himself as an intellectual force at the Bar, as well as a magnet both for top quality work and for the best graduates seeking to join the profession. He built up a strong following, with professional clients including Freshfields and Slaughter and May, and lay clients including the Bank of England and the Department of Employment. He took Silk in 1972 at the age of only 38 and shone particularly in the highest courts. Former Head of Chambers Anthony Boswood QC says of him that “Tom Bingham said it once, and that was it. … 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.”
His professional life at Fountain Court was happy and collegiate. Elizabeth Bingham remembers the day that Chambers moved to Fountain Court and their children splashed in the fountain imagining that their father must have a very enjoyable working life, “as indeed he did”. The many glowing obituaries in the national press have of course focussed on Tom Bingham’s professional and judicial success, but it is important not to lose sight of his remarkable personal qualities. Although he has been referred to as “frighteningly clever” and he did inspire awe in his colleagues – he was in fact a man of immense modesty, courtesy, charm, generosity and sympathy for others, devoted to his wife and three children, but held in great affection even by many who were only on the periphery of his acquaintances. Head of Chambers Tim Dutton QC says that “his many friends in chambers remember him as a man of great kindness and warmth, with a wry and engaging sense of humour”.
It was a source of great pride to Chambers that Tom Bingham returned to Fountain Court as an arbitrator upon his retirement from the House of Lords in 2008, tinged with a deep regret that the renewed association did not last longer than it did.
He first came to public prominence in 1977-1978, while a Queen’s Counsel still in his early 40s, when the Foreign Secretary appointed him to head the inquiry into allegations of UN sanctions busting involving Rhodesia. His report – the Investigation into the Supply of Petroleum and Petroleum Products to Rhodesia – with its conclusion that oil companies had deliberately contravened the sanctions with the complicity of British civil servants underlined his fearlessness and many of the qualities which would come to mark his time on the bench.
He was appointed as a Judge of the High Court, Queen’s Bench Division, in 1980, assigned to the Commercial Court, and was rapidly promoted to the Court of Appeal in 1986. During this period he was asked to write the report into the Bank of England’s supervision of BCCI and produced a critical, though balanced, analysis of regulatory failings. Produced in an amazingly short period of time (between 1990 and 1991) for such a thorough and comprehensive investigation, Lord Clarke described the report – the Inquiry into the Supervision of BCCI – as a tour de force in subsequent litigation in which the report itself and a number of members of Chambers featured prominently.
His judicial career was on any view a glittering one. He went on to hold the three most important judicial offices in the land: Master of the Rolls in 1992, Lord Chief Justice in 1996 and Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2000 – the first person to hold all three of these posts. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 2005, the first judge to be accorded this honour. Members of Chambers remember fondly the witty and typically self-deprecating speech which he made at the dinner held in his honour by Chambers to mark this appointment.
Tom Bingham’s contribution to the law was immense. As The Guardian notes “He was widely recognised as the greatest English judge since the second world war … serving at the apex of the judiciary for an unusually long span”. Presiding over the country’s highest court, he oversaw a string of ground-breaking judgments in various fields of law – emphasising the primacy of the rule of law and always written with an appreciation of the appropriate historical context. Indeed, his love of history never deserted him – one only has to read his account of the circumstances in which the Asquith Government passed the Parliament Act of 1911 in R (Jackson) v Attorney-General  1 AC 262 to see his deep erudition as well as his mastery of language. A leading Silk writes that “appearing before a court with Tom at its head was always a formidable experience, notwithstanding his consistent good humour: he combined a unique intellectual agility with a deep commitment to due process and fairness, as well as flashes of dry humour and wit, but never hesitated to let a barrister know when it was time to move on.”
He was a powerful advocate for the removal of the judicial function of the House of Lords from Parliament, with the creation of a supreme court for the United Kingdom. This was finally achieved with the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005. The Supreme Court began to function only in October 2009 and it is perhaps a pity that he had to retire before he could oversee its launch as its first President.
Tom Bingham’s judicial work was accompanied by a seemingly tireless devotion to public service. He maintained a deep affection for Balliol, where he was made an Honorary Fellow in 1989 and served as its Visitor from 1986 until his death (as well as assuming similar responsibilities and associations with numerous other educational establishments). He was the High Steward of Oxford University from 2002 until 2008. Since his retirement, he had given lectures to Oxford undergraduate law students as a Visiting Professor. He also served for a decade as a governor of his Cumbrian alma mater, Sedbergh. He served as Chairman of the Council of Legal Education and as a member of the Law Reform Committee. He was an active president of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, which in 2010 founded in his honour its Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He also served as chairman or trustee of numerous charities, including a charity particularly close to his heart – Reprieve, which assists prisoners facing the death penalty and prisoners held beyond the rule of law. This is just a snapshot of the many good causes he worked for or championed. Amazingly he also found the time to author two seminal and critically acclaimed texts – The Business of Judging and, most recently, The Rule of Law.
His list of academic and professional awards is awe-inspiring. He was a Gibbs Scholar and Coolidge Pathfinder at Balliol and – unusually for a non-Law graduate – he was awarded the Eldon Law Scholarship by Oxford University in 1957. Gray’s Inn awarded him the Arden Law Scholarship in 1959 and elected him as a Bencher in 1979. He was made an Honorary Bencher by The Inner Temple, The Middle Temple and the Inn of Court of Northern Ireland. The list of honorary degrees (including from Oxford, London and Birmingham Universities) and other accolades bestowed on Tom Bingham is formidable, but his feet always remained firmly on the ground. As the Master of Balliol comments, “alongside his unparalleled contributions to the law, everyone here saw a man of great humanity, integrity, modesty and goodness”.
In remembering the exemplary life of a wonderful friend and colleague, we leave the final word to Lord Hope speaking on behalf of the members of the Supreme Court:
“The debt we owe to Tom Bingham, the greatest jurist of our time, is immense and incalculable.
It is to him, perhaps more than anyone else, that the Supreme Court itself owes its existence – something that he had long believed in and happily was realised during his lifetime.
But his real legacy lies in the depth and quality of the many judgments that he delivered, especially during his eight years as the Senior Law Lord. His energy, his unshakeable grasp of principle, the clarity and force of his language and his strong sense of history shone through everything that he said and wrote. It is a tragedy that someone who still had so much to give should have died so early after his retirement when, at last, he had the time and freedom to do what he wanted.”
Photograph used with the kind permission of Emmanuelle Purdon of Reprieve.