This December, the UKSC Blog will be featuring two book reviews, on titles relevant to the UK Supreme Court and which readers may wish to enjoy over the Christmas and New Year break.  In our first review, Zainab Hodgson, a senior associate at CMS and Ifeoma Onyearu, a law student at Kings College London, University of London, share their review onA Judge’s Journey“, the memoir of former UK Supreme Court Justice, Lord Dyson, published by Bloomsbury in September 2019

This is a compelling, emotional and frank memoir of Lord John Dyson, a former British judge and barrister. He was Master of the Rolls (President of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales and Head of Civil Justice) from 2012 to 2016, and a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2012.

The memoir is borne out of Lord Dyson’s valedictory speech on his retirement as the Master of the Rolls in 2016.  The memoir wonderfully describes Lord Dyson’s life, professional and personal, and particularly depicts the life of a judge and the judging process.  The story is rich in detail.  Indeed, it appears there are not many areas of his life upon which the book has not touched, and the reader is taken on a journey through his life at significant periods of time.

The memoir is told for the most part in chronological order.  The story is broken down into distinct chapters chronicling Dyson’s life beginning with chapters focused on his parents’ and their family background.  This includes some harrowing details relating to the suffering experienced by members of his mother’s family in the Holocaust and that of his maternal grandmother, Malvine, at the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen.  Lord Dyson’s approach to the early chapters is beautifully reminiscent of a historian at work. It is clear that much time has been spent on unearthing historic facts concerning his grandparents to do justice to their experience in Hungary on the eve of, and during, the Second World War.  Lord Dyson’s Jewish roots ring clear throughout this memoir and it is fitting that there is a chapter dedicated to this core aspect of his identity.

Family is a central theme.  Lord Dyson’s fondness for his grandmother resonates throughout the book.  What is particularly touching is his wish that she could have been alive for his knighthood and to share in the story of his audience with Her Majesty The Queen in 1993. He blends stories relating to his personal and professional life adeptly and how he has grappled with balancing what must surely have been a full workload and family life.  He gives credit to his wife, Jacqueline, and from his frequent references to her support and her professional achievements, including a short stint in legal practice followed by an illustrious career in academia, it is clear that she has been a monumental support to him. The heartening quality this brings to his memoir is impossible to miss and resounds throughout this body of work.

There are chapters detailing Lord Dyson’s early childhood in Leeds including his formative years at Ingledew College before his progression to the Junior School of Leeds Grammar School. Lord Dyson’s profound use of imagery creates an immersive, almost cinematic, experience for the reader in which they are able to imagine him, with his parents and younger brother Robert, on the sandy shores whilst adorning the red and green uniform of Ingledew College.  There are some interesting anecdotes from his time at Wadham College, Oxford in the 1960s and his early sojourns across Europe including his attempt to mirror Belloc’s Path to Rome.  The memoir describes Lord Dyson’s clear disappointment that he did not achieve a first class, which he appears destined for, but for suffering from Crohn’s disease shortly before he was due to sit his final exams.  As a result, he was unable to take up an appointment as a Classics instructor at Cornell University and it seems this diverted a possible pursuit in a career in academia, but that was of course much to the privilege of the legal aristocracy.  Lord Dyson’s passion for music, particularly the piano, is prominent throughout the book. Lord Dyson’s music teacher, Dame Fanny Waterman, clearly fostered his love of music and she is mentioned throughout the memoir.

The chapters of his time in practice at the bar, on the bench as a High Court Judge from 1993, his elevation to the Court of Appeal in 2001, a Supreme Court Justice in 2010 and, finally, his time as Master of the Rolls in 2012 are perhaps the most intriguing. A significant proportion of the book relates to his time as Master of the Rolls and the memorable cases he heard in that role.  There are countless examples of how he has contributed to the growth of the law, including in the law on the right to privacy and on the controversial issue of assisted suicide.

Today, more than ever, judges are in the public eye and are coming under serious scrutiny.  It is clear that Lord Dyson has a profound respect for the concept of the separation of powers.  One of his judgments which garnered media attention and criticism from the (then) Home Secretary – Michael Howard-  was the case of R v Home Secretary ex p Norney [1995] QBD 6 Oct. Lord Dyson upheld the challenge to the (then) Home Secretary’s decision refusing to refer cases of five IRA claimants to the Parole Board until approximately six months after the expiry of their tariff periods.  The memoir recounts a Radio 4 interview given by Mr Howard shortly after that judgment in which Mr Howard appeared to attack Lord Dyson’s competence. His annoyance at not being able to respond to that criticism is palpable, notwithstanding the charming anecdote that Mr Howard sought his forgiveness sometime after his radio interview.

Four of his Court of Appeal judgments of particular general interest are described together with the two major events which went on to reshape the legal landscape: the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the civil procedure reforms and the passing of the Civil Procedure Act 1997. Whilst noting the improvements in the civil justice system, Lord Dyson is frank and unhesitatingly proclaims those areas that are in need of further adjustment and he agrees “that the civil procedure rules have become far too complicated” (p. 120).

He is candid and humble and it is striking that he could not see himself as a bencher, let alone a Justice of the Supreme Court.  Dyson described the pursuit of his career in law as faute de mieux, almost a serendipitous encounter.  His time in the Supreme Court was relativity brief (30 months) yet it is apparent that he was not afraid to speak his mind and he therefore confesses to having written a substantial number of judgments. In portraying this aspect of his career, he utilises the perspective of Professor Alan Paterson who wrote in his book titled Final Judgment: The Last Law Lords and the Supreme Court (2013) that “…there can be little doubt that the most successful task leader in the Supreme Court in its first three years was Lord Dyson…Lord Dyson wasted few opportunities to tell his colleagues (senior and junior) in his judgments precisely where he did and did not agree with them. .. Yet in four or possibly other cases his attempts to write clear and persuasive dissent were so successful that they became the lead judgment.  In his two years on the Court, no other Justice succeeded in bringing over so many votes to his side after the first conference. In all, Lord Dyson gave 14 lead or single judgments (21 per cent of his cases) ranking him (whilst he was a full-time member of the Court) as the most prolific lead writer after Lords Phillips and Hope” (p. 135 and 136). His ability to write succinctly is attributed to his classical training, particularly his study of Latin.

The memoir is a compelling read, and it is a story that needed to be told.  The book will appeal to individuals with a legal background or any interest in the law but, moreover, Lord Dyson’s transparency, humility, and assiduous disposition will most definitely appeal to all.