Obituary: Lord Scarman

An outstanding judicial figure, entrusted with the most high-profile inquiries and marked by his integrity

"In ambles the lanky - gracefully lanky - figure of a youthful judge," wrote Sybille Bedford in her 1990 collection of essays, As It Was, "... a most unusual face: enormous eyes deep-set between high cheek-bones and a jutting skull, a pale face, a hollow face with skin stretched taut, and yet the mouth is full and there show dimples in the sunken cheeks; it is an ascetic's face lit by charm, given the lie by a cherub's smile ... there is something striking about this man with the austere head and the schoolboy smile, an irresistible combination of youthful charm with a mature and balanced mind ... it is impossible to imagine him bullying anyone. Yet he is held in respect: there is no doubt that authority flows from him." Bedford is describing Lord Scarman, who has died aged 93, as a judge of first instance, untying the web of competing claims over the Fuld estate in the late 1960s.

Leslie Scarman, chairman of the Law Commission (1965-73), who was later thrust into the public eye for his 1981 inquiry into the Brixton riots, stood out in his generation as the model judge: fairness, intelligence, learning, compassion and firmness all combined.

He became a barrister in 1936 and a QC in 1957. In his progress from the high court bench (1961-73) to the court of appeal (1973) and then on to the House of Lords in 1977, he remained the same unpompous person, invariably courteous.

With his stooping frame and cadaverous features went a gentleness of manner and a thoughtfulness of approach which were entirely unaffected - unless you shared the view of the head of his chambers, the lugubrious Melford Stevenson. "Leslie," said Melford, "helps solicitors on with their coats like Father D'Arcy elevating the host." Scarman would have welcomed the recognition that he was at least not a participant to the Bar's snobbery, just as he was not daunted by the professional hard core's view of him as a bleeding heart.

In one case Scarman had argued as junior counsel, the judge, who wanted Scarman's client to win, offered him a point of law which Scarman knew was bad, but which would have won him the case. Scarman refused to take it. Then and since, and although the judicial decisions he made in his many years on the bench were not all obviously "right", the word which most aptly characterised Scarman, and will mark his memory, is integrity.

When central government needed a judicial inquiry into a matter of public concern, it was repeatedly to Scarman that it turned: the 1969 disturbances in Northern Ireland (1972), Red Lion Square (1975), the Grunwick trade union dispute (1977), and, of course, Brixton. In each case, Scarman's reputation for fair-mindedness was used by Westminster and Whitehall to reassure the world that official wrongdoing and error would not go undetected or uncriticised. His reports never seriously rocked the political boat, but he himself learned and grew with them.

He later described as "traumatic" his realisation from his Northern Ireland inquiry, set up to investigate civil disturbances, that many of the people of the six counties were effectively without rights.

But Scarman was no pushover, as lawyers appearing before him repeatedly discovered. His opening statement at the first of his inquiries, into the disorders in London's Red Lion Square in 1974 which led to the death of the student Kevin Gateley, has become a classic source of tone and format, and set the unmistakable stamp of his authority and control on the proceedings: "This is an inquiry, not a piece of litigation ... It is I and I alone who will decide what witnesses are to be called ... I propose within limits to allow cross-examination of witnesses to the extent that I think it helpful to the forwarding of the inquiry, but no further."

Although others have occupied more limelight, as an all-round lawyer Scarman was probably unequalled in his judicial generation. He had Denning's sense of policy without the partiality, Diplock's acuity without the acerbity, and as much learning as either of them. Moreover, where other judges tended to take an instrumental view of constitutional issues, Scarman had the understanding and vision to take a principled and synoptic view. Presiding on appeals against sentence, he had almost a sixth sense of the small indicators which made leniency possible.

Yet for all his wisdom and liberality, he never broke the mould of English law. Sometimes this was because he felt constrained by the inherited logic of jurisprudence (something which rarely troubled Denning if his emotions were engaged), but sometimes it betrayed an unexpectedly conservative streak in him. He upheld, for example, the blasphemy conviction of Gay News for describing Christ as a homosexual, in 1979. His decision, upholding what many regarded as an illiberal and anachronistic law of blasphemy, represented not an ineluctable application of law to fact, but a choice in favour of a state religion.

In the Fare's Fair (1981) case involving the Greater London Council's policy on cheap transport, and the case about the withdrawal of recognition of unions at GCHQ in Cheltenham, he surprised liberals by siding with the establishment. Yet once retired, he publicly supported the reopening of the cases of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, involving convictions following bomb attacks, and the Bridgewater Four, who had been convicted for the murder of a newspaper boy.

Scarman was born in Streatham, south London, the son of a Lloyd's underwriter and insurance broker, and a Scottish mother. With his striking academic background (open scholarships to Radley College and then on to Brasenose College, Oxford, and a double first in classics in 1932) and his profile as a thinking judge, Scarman was Lord Chancellor Gerald Gardiner's obvious choice as first chairman of the Law Commission when Labour took office in 1964. Law reform as a major objective of government has still not set the Thames on fire, at least not above Westminster Bridge, but Scarman's stewardship gave it a status which has kept law reform alive as a strategic, rather than merely a reactive, activity.

It was towards the end of his time there, in 1974, that Scarman delivered his Hamlyn Lectures, English Law -The New Dimension, which put on the map the now realised proposal to carry the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. Re-reading the lectures today, the depth and prescience of his arguments are arresting. It is good that he lived to see his case prevail. While his status forbade overt politics, Scarman was sharply aware that rights are useless without some form of empowerment.

He gave his patronage and support not only to the constitutional reform group Charter 88, but to a variety of campaigns concerned with democratising access to justice, among them the Citizen Action Compensation Campaign (president from 1988) and the Public Law Project. His chancellorship of Warwick University (1977-89) and his presidency of the British Institute of Human Rights were two among a plethora of offices occupied by him after his retirement; and much of his energy in his final years was given to young people through the Prince's Trust.

What perhaps deserves to be recorded about Leslie Scarman, because it is largely eclipsed by his distinction as a lawyer, is what a civilised man he was. In a submission at his Brixton inquiry, a barrister negligently attributed to Candide the view that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. "I think you'll find it was Dr Pangloss," Scarman said gently.

During the Colonel B contempt case involving the Leveller magazine in the House of Lords in 1979, one of the QCs cited part of Lord Shaw's speech from the Scott case in 1913 on the need for open justice. As counsel closed the volume, Scarman said: "You ought to go on. You've left out one of the finest passages of legal prose in the English language." The passage, which Scarman must have known by heart, includes a sentence which may stand as his epitaph: "To remit the maintenance of constitutional right to the region of judicial discretion is to shift the foundations of freedom from the rock to the sand."

He is survived by his wife Ruth, whom he married in 1947, and a son.

· Leslie George Scarman, Baron Scarman of Quatt, lawyer, born July 29 1911; died December 8 2004

Stephen Sedley

The GuardianTramp

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