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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:02pm

John Dyson’s memoir A Judge’s Journey deftly combines humility, humanity and historical context

By Rachel Holmes

Surprisingly for the work of a successful man of any profession, John Dyson’s memoir combines humility, humanity and historical context. This is a rare gift, including among recently unplugged justices of the United Kingdom’s highest court.

Lord Dyson retired three years ago as Master of the Rolls, the second most senior judge in England and Wales. Previously, after a stellar career at the Bar, in the High Court and Court of Appeal, he served in the early days of the Supreme Court. His legal prowess and advocacy are beyond doubt. But this is neither a law book, nor the philosophical treatise of a public intellectual, such as The Rule of Law by the late great Tom Bingham.

Dyson is the grandson of eastern European Jewish migrants (his father changed his surname from Dytch), who attended Leeds Grammar School before studying classics at Oxford and embarking on a lifetime of law. He writes personally as well as analytically about the private and professional, unafraid of discussing doubts and “reverses” – overcoming anti-Semitism, shyness, a very serious burns injury, ME and depression. Though a man of the establishment, his European, Jewish and Yorkshire roots come out as strongly as his love of family, mountain walking and music. These blend well with his commitment to justice and human rights, and his ultimate vocation in judicial public service.

While early chapters bring insights into the man, the reader’s real pay-off is the candour with which Dyson discusses the process of judging in modern Britain. The High Court chapter is notable both for his description of the diligent, modest, “conspicuously fair” Bingham (much of which might apply to the author himself) and of an elite civil lawyer being confronted with the messy and brutal reality of criminal cases while on circuit. Dyson describes a trial for a serious assault by a wholly sympathetic and wronged woman on her former partner. Her evidence was confused and disclosed no defence in law. The judge worried about having to send the 25-year-old to prison and ruining her life.

“In the event, the jury came to my rescue and acquitted her of both offences,” he writes. “The defendant and her mother burst into tears, there was an uproar in court and I was spared the difficulty of deciding what sentence to pass.” There follows an admirable and robust defence of the jury system which, says Dyson, “is firmly embedded in our constitution”.

Later on and while in the Court of Appeal, Dyson was the first ever serving judge to sit on a jury himself. This is not the only time when carefully laid bread-crumbs are retrieved to good effect. Propositioned by a young man while an undergraduate in 1963 he “fled the room”: “I have long since ceased to be homophobic and look back on that incident with some embarrassment.” This is considerable understatement given his important role in the landmark Black and Morgan vs Wilkinson discrimination case in 2013, when a Christian B&B owner refused a room to a gay couple.

Dyson talks with honesty and humour of how it feels to be unfairly criticised by politicians and the media. Michael Howard, then home secretary, took to the Today programme to attack the judge’s competence, after a ruling upholding prisoners’ rights to apply for parole at the end of the minimum terms of their sentences. (Howard did not seek to appeal the decision.) Balancing competing interests of due process and national security, privacy and free expression are part of the “awesome” challenge of judging. Dyson once refused a woman’s application for an injunction against further press publication of the previously published fact that Boris Johnson had fathered her child. In a 2009 case, he decided against allowing the police to hold photographs of peaceful protesters indefinitely.

Dyson is less forensic when dealing with politics beyond his courtroom. The contestable assertion that, “Israeli law provides strong human rights protection for everyone without discrimination” is made without further argument or qualification, and his thoughts on Brexit are tantalisingly undeveloped. This is perhaps understandable from a person who has sworn to the judge’s oath and states that, “The middle ground is my natural habitat.” Dyson is no activist.

In this year’s Reith Lectures, Jonathan Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court, accused the courts of exceeding the proper scope of their powers by using human rights to enter the political fray. Those seeking an alternative to Sumption should follow Dyson’s judicial journey. 


A Judge’s Journey
John Dyson
Hart, 256pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con