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Lord Steyn: a legal luminary who upheld the rights of the powerless


Lord Steyn in 2005: a man of forthright opinion apparently untroubled by self doubt

The following 2004 broadside was fired by Lord Steyn, described in his Times obituary as an “Outspoken law lord whose liberal views became a thorn in the side of the Blair government, especially over Iraq and Guantanamo Bay”, following Lord Hoffmann’s suggestion that the courts should not interfere with certain Government decisions.

“Courts must never abdicate their duty to protect citizens from the abuse of power by governments . . .The United States government has already created a hellhole of utter lawlessness at Guantanamo Bay by committing such abuse.”

Lord Steyn was born and bred in Cape Town and was one of the few native Afrikaaners who fiercely opposed apartheid. He won a Rhodes scholarship to read English at University College, Oxford and after being called to the bar and sitting as senior counsel in South Africa’s supreme court emigrated to Britain in 1973 to start on the bottom rung of the legal ladder.

Though English was not his native language, his Afrikaans accent remained thick and his ‘delivery’ in court was hesitant, he was admired for his clear arguments and his skill in cross-examination. Having served as the presiding judge on the Northern Circuit, Steyn moved to the Court of Appeal in 1992. He was made a life peer in 1995.

A detainee from Afghanistan is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Telegraph 2016)

In 2003 he accused the home secretary, David Blunkett, of using “weasel words” to justify his policy on asylum seekers. Five months later, Steyn branded the US regime at Guantanamo Bay “a monstrous failure of justice” and declared that the system of trial by military tribunal was no more than a “kangaroo court” that “makes a mockery of justice”.

The unkett then blocked his appointment to a House of Lords judicial committee

The senior law lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, was asked not to include Steyn on the nine-judge panel to decide on the legality of detaining foreign terror suspects without trial – the first time a government had ever sought and obtained an alteration in the composition of the House of Lords’ judicial committee.

His other achievements include:

  • being one of the judges who ruled by a 3-2 majority that the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was not entitled to claim sovereign immunity from prosecution;
  • reproving Lord Irvine of Lairg, the lord chancellor who sought ‘an unfettered right to impose rule changes on the legal profession; “He is a member of the executive carrying out the party political agenda of the Labour administration. He is a politician. To entrust to a cabinet minister the power to control the legal profession would be an exorbitant inroad on the constitutional principle of the separation of powers”;
  • claiming, when Britain introduced executive detention without trial in 2001, that the UK opt-out from the European Convention on Human Rights was not justified “in the present circumstances”.
  • arguing, as chairman of Justice, the human rights group, that the Iraq War was unlawful and said that, “in its search for a justification in law for war, the government was driven to scrape the bottom of the legal barrel”;
  • dismissing Tony Blair’s suggestion, just months after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, that the war had not made London a more dangerous place as a “fairytale”.

A champion of the Human Rights Act 1998, he retired satisfied that it had already “transformed our country into a rights-based democracy”. Hmm . . .

Anthony Lester, QC, wrote: “He has woven the Human Rights Act into the fabric of our legal system. He has a terrier-like tenacity and the courage of a lion. He’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to replace.” Agreed.





This weekend’s focus on the role of Prince Charles: the first comments

Ranging from unqualified agreement to qualified approval and – finally – a warning:

prince charles ft photograph

Jehangir Pocha, chief editor of India’s NewsX TV:

I agree totally

Councillor Linda Brown from Solihull

I saw some of the Prince of Wales’ work in the Jewellery Quarter when I worked there for 11 years in the 1980s and was impressed with him. He had his working building there and regularly turned up and saw young people who wanted to start up in business. I knew some of those he had helped: he kept in touch with them and visited the area to see them.

Colin Tudge from Oxford, Campaign for Real Farming

Prince Charles is one of the very few people in a position of influence who actually has some grasp of the nature and magnitude of the ills that face the world, and is doing a great deal to help put things right.

Privilege and the wealth and power that go with it are easily abused but at least they can solve the problem that faces everyone who wants to step outside convention and hence to push things forward – of how to keep body and soul together without joining the rat race.

Most scholars alas these days must spend half their lives, literally, chasing grants, and often finish up taking money from people they would rather not have dealings with. This is a huge and growing problem and privilege when well used overcomes it. (Writing books used to solve the problem in part but publishing alas is not what it was).

A Shirley reader

Agree, don’t like monarchy in principle. But what’s a Prince supposed to do…? I believe he should have an opinion, if one ‘for the best of the future of the country’, even if that rustles current political feathers, and better if it does so £££-focused ‘politicians’…. like his speeches on faith & climate change…

Lesley Docksey from Dorset

Prince Charles does sometimes get it wrong, but not as horribly wrong as an awful lot of politicians. And though I don’t always agree with his passions, I applaud the fact that he speaks up for them.

I hate his support for some of the uber-rich oil sheikhs but love his devotion to the health of the environment and organic farming.

I agreed with his opinion of the National Gallery extension as a “monstrous carbuncle”. But here in Dorset we have to put up with Poundbury – a new town outside Dorchester that looks like Disney’s idea of a “traditional” English town, another monstrous carbuncle of the Prince’s devising. Like most humans he is full of contradictions.

Where voicing his opinions is concerned, the Prince can’t win. He’s not supposed to voice them in public because he’s a member of the Royal family. I don’t think there’s a law which says he can’t.

It has just gradually become the “rule” and the people who want him to stay silent are politicians and big business. If he voices them in private he’s “taking advantage of his position”. But ex-politicians have no difficulty with using their ex-position to influence things behind the scenes – and make money doing so, something the Prince doesn’t do!

Being in favour of free speech I’d like to see both the Prince and the Queen say what they think. I’d love to know what their opinions are and it doesn’t mean I have to agree with them! But I don’t think making them keep silent is, in the long run, good for the country. I also think that the Queen and Prince Charles probably have more loyalty (and certainly a far greater sense of duty) towards our country than any of our politicians.

A Moseley reader advises:

  • Blunkett should keep his mouth shut.
  • As one of Blair’s supporters he and all that group should be erased from public life.
  • Prince Charles should also learn to keep his opinions to himself.
  • The British monarchy can only retain its place by NOT interfering in government policies.
  • If King Charles does continue as the prince has done, we run the risk of a rise of republicanism – and someone like, if not actually, Tony Blair becoming president.

Resonances with Dorset reader: “Put it another way – would you rather have Charles govern the country or Tony Blair?????????”

Sideline Cruddas and focus on the revolving door: the most damaging facet of our money-ridden so-called democracy

The expenses scandals and the wining and dining of donors pales into insignificance compared with the web of influence built up as politicians, advisors and civil servants pass to lucrative corporate posts and sometimes back again into government service. 

Just look at the Register of Members’ Interests to see how MPs and Lords are spending their time. Most focussed on their job are MPs like Glenda Jackson – and those by definition giving less time are MPs such as David Blunkett and Keith Vaz. 

A search on ‘revolving door’ on this site will reveal 64 references to this practice since the site was set up in 2009.