Alfred Thompson “Tom” Denning, Baron Denning, (23 January 1899 – 5 March 1999), commonly known as Lord Denning, was an English lawyer and judge. He gained degrees in mathematics and law at Oxford University, although his studies were disrupted by his service in the First World War. He then began his legal career, distinguishing himself as a barrister and becoming a King’s Counsel in 1938.
Denning became a judge in 1944 with an appointment to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice and was made a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1948 after less than five years in the High Court. He became a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1957 and after five years in the House of Lords returned to the Court of Appeal as Master of the Rolls in 1962, a position he held for twenty years. In retirement he wrote several books and continued to offer opinions on the state of the common law through his writing and his position in the House of Lords.
One of the most publicly known judges thanks to his report on the Profumo Affair, Denning was held in high regard by much of the judiciary, the Bar and the public, and was noted for his bold judgments running counter to the law at the time. During his 38-year career as a judge he made large changes to the common law, particularly while in the Court of Appeal, and although many of his decisions were overturned by the House of Lords several of them were confirmed by Parliament, which passed statutes in line with his judgments. Although appreciated for his role as ‘the people’s judge’ and his support for the individual, Denning was also controversial for his campaign against the common law principle of precedent, for comments he made regarding the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four and as Master of the Rolls for his conflict with the House of Lords.
Denning has been described as the most influential judge of the 20th century, in part because of his changes to the common law and also due to his personalisation of the legal profession. With his judgments on war pensions and his role in the enquiry into the Profumo Affair, Denning became possibly the best known judge ever to belong to the English judiciary, with the public treating Lord Denning and the Court of Appeal as synonymous.He was equally well-loved and controversial, appreciated for his role as ‘the peoples judge’ and his support for the common man and disliked by elements of the bar and judiciary for ‘uncertainty in the law’ created by his broad judgments.
Denning made sweeping changes to the Common Law, with the resurrection of equitable estoppel and his reform of divorce law. A common misconception is that most of his judgments were overturned in the House of Lords; many were, including the expansion to the doctrine of fundamental breach he set out in Photo Production Ltd v Securicor Transport Ltd, but they let many judgments stand and on occasion agreed with his judgment in situations where he dissented, such as in his final case George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd v Finney Lock Seeds Ltd in 1983.
Several law-related things have been named after Denning due to his reputation as a judge, in particular the Lord Denning Scholarship of Lincoln’s Inn and the Denning Law Journal of the University of Buckingham. The law library of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied, is known as the Denning Law Library.