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Alfred Thompson Denning

Lord Denning (23 January, 1899 - 6 March, 1999) was a British barrister from Hampshire who became Master of the Rolls (the senior judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) and was generally well liked, both within the legal profession and outside it. Lord Denning was a judge for 38 years, retiring at the age of 83 in 1982.

Born Alfred Thompson Denning at Whitchurch in Hampshire in the UK the fourth of five sons of Charles Denning and his wife Clara. Lord Denning's father was a draper. His mother had been a school teacher. He was a graduate and honorary fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford University and the Inns of Court. He was called to the English bar in 1923, appointed a judge in 1944, a Justice of Appeal in 1948, a Lord of Appeal in 1957, and was Master of the Rolls from 1962 to 1982. He first married in 1932. His wife Mary died nine years later. He remarried in 1945 to Joan, who died in 1992.

He became well known for his judgements, which frequently pushed the law in novel directions. Even in his early career his decision in the now world renowned High Trees case: Central London Property Trust Ltd. v. High Trees House Ltd. [1947] K.B. 130 brought him into forefront of judicial reasoning for his innovative approach to legal reasoning when he developed the principle of equitable estoppel as applied to contract law.

Denning spent twenty years as the Master of the Rolls, presiding over the Court of Appeal, after five years as a Law Lord, shifting to the Court of Appeal at his request because he was happier with that post than a post in the more senior court. Court of Appeal judges sit in threes, and the Lords in fives (or more) so it was suggested that to get his way in the Court of Appeal Denning only had to persuade one other judge - in the House of Lords it was two. The other benefit of the Court of Appeal is that it hears more cases than the House of Lords and so has a greater effect on the law. Of his move down the legal hierarchy, Denning quipped, "To most lawyers on the bench, the House of Lords is like heaven. You want to get there someday - but not while there is any life in you". The last sitting UK judge not bound by a mandatory retirement age,he was forced to retire after remarks interpreted as racially insensitive though generally understood not to have indicated such feelings.

Whatever the truth of it, Lord Denning became immensely popular for his judgements which often bent the law into interesting directions, and his unusually prosaic style in giving judgement. Examples of some opening lines, or opening paragraphs, from five of Denning's judgments are set out below:

Many of Denning's efforts to change the law were vindicated by the passage of time (and legislation) – in particular, his efforts to establish an abandoned wives' equity, small print exemption clauses, inequality of bargaining power, negligent mis-statement, liability of public authorities, and contractual interpretation.

He died a few months after celebrating his 100th birthday. Denning was too frail to attend his own 100th birthday party: at the event, Law Society President Michael Matthews said, "He was a towering figure in the law who made an enormous contribution to the law of this century, probably the major contribution". Eulogising Denning's death, a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, said that Denning would go down in history as "one of the great and controversial judges of the 20th century".