Law and the Whirligig of Time

Author: Sir Stephen Sedley
Publisher: Hart Publishing
ISBN: 9781509917099

This is a rich collection of historical essays, learned articles, speeches and potted biographies. It is only at the end that we discover that as a young law student, the author/former Lord Justice of Appeal was the folk music critic for Tribune and once played an impromptu session with Bob Dylan at the Troubadour. It is worth noting this, when one reads forward, that at least one judge was never out of touch with the zeitgeist.

‘The whirligigs of time’ is the phrase from Twelfth Night appropriately first uttered in an Inn of Court. In a lecture at Edinburgh Sir Stephen pointed out the speed at which our notion of human rights has changed, eg how have we gone in a generation from seeing same gender sex as a sin to something protected by the human right of privacy? ‘It is the revenge which time is for ever taking on things we imagine to be timeless’.

Having been a pioneer of modern administrative law while at the Bar and having spent 19 years on the bench, the pieces inevitably dwell on how the law has changed and on how judges fit into the constitutional arrangement. He deals with the media-fed perception that judges are ‘unaccountable’. Here as elsewhere he points his guns towards the mischief caused by the illiberal parts of the media – one of Sir Stephen’s attributes being an encyclopaedic memory of all the silly things which have been printed over the years. ‘I do not imagine that the unelected-and-unaccountable critics want judges who have to be voted in or can be voted out.’ A judge who can be removed by government or the electorate ‘lacks the central attribute of judicial office, independence’.

The ‘People’ section includes his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries on Lords Scarman, Bingham and Diplock, and his obituary of Lord Denning. Magisterial, frank and unafraid to debunk some much-loved misconceptions about some of these men, they are excellent introductions to some important legal lives. Almost the last passage in the book is his advice to Oxford law students: ‘Possibly the hardest thing to achieve in legal practice is losing a case well... I mean leaving court knowing that you couldn’t have done more.’

Perhaps in the future we shall hear something of those students. Meanwhile we look forward to hearing more, in his ostensible retirement, from Sir Stephen.

Reviewer: David Wurtzel