Life & Culture

‘We are living in 
dangerous times’ - ex-Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson's bags are 'metaphorically' packed

The man who was the second most senior judge in England and Wales tells the JC: 'We do very occasionally wonder if we had to go, where we would go'


John Dyson is railing against the Daily Mail — specifically, the notorious 2016 headline that branded three High Court judges “Enemies of the People” for ruling against the government over Brexit.

“Railing” is the wrong word. His tone is measured, the words carefully chosen. But there is real force behind them, and with reason. Until three years ago, Lord Dyson was Master of the Rolls — the second most senior judge in England and Wales.

We are sitting in a room on the fifth floor of a barristers’ chambers in London’s Chancery Lane. It is the day before the Supreme Court deliberates on whether the government acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament — another potential “enemies of the people” moment.

Lord Dyson has no doubts about the integrity of the 11 presiding judges. “It is a very important case, but they decide lots of important cases,” he says.

His view on Prime Minister Boris Johnson is no less clear.

“I have not been at all impressed so far. Can I leave it at that?”

Lord Dyson retired in 2016 after a 45-year career in which he rose from a barrister specialising in construction law — considered to be a “rather dull” field — to the pinnacle of his profession, via the benches of the High Court, the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court.

He is still working, as an arbitrator, and admits, at the age of 76, to being “busier than I want to be”. But he finds it hard to say no to clients for fear they may not ask him again. It’s an insecurity that goes with being a barrister — “you can’t break the habit of a lifetime”, he sighs.

Busy he may be but he has found time to write a memoir. A Judge’s Journey tells the story of how the son of Jewish shop owners became one of the leading legal figures of his era.

His career is all the more remarkable given that he has battled ME and depression and some years ago set himself on fire when attempting to light a barbecue, a “horrific” accident that “could easily have led to an early death”, he says in the book.

He was born in Leeds in July 1943, at midnight during a huge thunderstorm. His father was “convinced it was a portent of something momentous”.

Growing up, he recalls, “most of my friends were Jewish, pretty much all of my parents’ friends were Jewish… It was a tight community”.

His mother came from Sofia, his father’s family settled in Yorkshire from what is now Lithuania. In typical immigrant fashion, they encouraged their two sons to aim for the professions.

“It never entered their minds that I or my brother should follow in their footsteps in the retail business. They would have regarded that as, not failure, but it would have been a source of great disappointment to them.”

Education was the key to advancement and the young Dyson worked hard and made it to Oxford - the first in his family to reach university.

He studied classics and for a time a career in academia beckoned. But he opted for the law after deciding he lacked sufficient passion for a lifetime studying ancient Greek history.

He headed for London - his “crossing the Rubicon” moment - in 1968 and trained as a barrister in Temple Inn. Initially he specialised in civil cases relating to the building and engineering industry.

Was this the first move in a carefully thought-out career plan? Hardly.

“I do feel in my life that I have just been carried along on a wave and external forces have been applied,” he says.

“All I wanted to do when I started at the bar was be a successful barrister. I didn’t even think when I started out about becoming a QC. And then gradually people started to say you should take silk, so I then I was sort of pushed into applying to become a QC. And then the idea of being a judge only entered my mind for the first time when people started saying to me, you’re going to be a judge aren’t you.”

The challenges brought by each new role are what have kept him “excited”, he says. “I’m not the sort of person who just shelters in the safe waters where they feel comfortable.”

The cases have been challenging too. As a barrister, he represented the Football Association in the Hillsborough inquiry. He was instructed by the FA again to defend claims that the setting up of the Premier League in 1992 was unlawful.

As a High Court judge he attracted criticism when he ruled against the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, over the rights of IRA prisoners coming up for parole. He says he was “stunned” when Lord Howard, against all convention, publicly questioned his competence.

He was in the firing line again when, as Master of the Rolls, he blocked the deportation of Abu Qatada, regarded as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, over fears he would not get a fair trial in Jordon. “I had no doubt the decision was right,” he says in the book.

Through good times and bad, he has enjoyed it all - well, almost all.

“Being in the Supreme Court was an enormous privilege. I was only there two and a half years. People think I made a big mark,” he says.

“There was much about being Master of the Rolls which I loved. Some of it was a bit drudgery.”


“It was the meetings, a lot of them technical meetings. But I was able to choose the cases I wanted to sit on so I had some fabulous cases. I met lots and lots of important people. I travelled and gave lectures here and there. That was a wonderful time, those four years.”

One of the highlights was the celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, when he escorted the Queen as she unveiled a commemorative plaque.

In his book, Lord Dyson lists the qualities needed to be an effective judge. Integrity, clarity of thought, common sense, fairness. “I hope I have all those,” he says.

Even with those qualities, it is impossible to be sure every ruling was the correct one. “I decided some really quite difficult cases. Some of them were knife-edged, so to say in every case I was 100 per cent certain I got it right would be wrong.”

Throughout his career the support he has received from his wife Jacqueline has been paramount. They met when he was a young barrister and she was training to be a lawyer. They have been married for 49 years — the wedding was at Mill Hill Synagogue — and have two grown-up children.

“In a number of ways [she] sacrificed her own career ambitions to her family, to me,” he says. “She’s my rock.”

He has been fortunate, he adds, to have been “surrounded by strong women” throughout his life.

“My grandmother, my mother was very strong, my wife is very strong and my daughter is very strong, so I’m used to strong women. I think I respond well to strong women, and I like strong women.”

His grandmother, Malvine, survived Belsen. In Sofia the family were well-to-do with business connections to the Bulgarian royal family. Lord Dyson’s pride in his background is evident.

“I have a strong sense of my roots being in Europe,” he says.

Does he have an equally strong sense of his Jewishness?

“Oh, yes. Not the religious side of things. But very much the cultural side of things. I’m just very conscious of being Jewish.”

In A Judge’s Journey, there is a chapter devoted to his experience as a Jew in Britain, in which he describes himself as “a fully committed Jew” and a Zionist — he is an honorary Fellow of the Hebrew University.

But he also admits to having felt awkward early on in his career about revealing his Jewishness to non-Jewish colleagues, something he attributes to a “sense of insecurity” that is part of the Jewish DNA.

“I really wanted to say this publicly because when I mention it to non-Jewish friends they can’t believe it. They ask how can someone like [me], who is seen as an establishment figure, well embedded in English society, seen the Queen, all this sort of stuff, how can you have these feelings of insecurity… Yet I’ve found so many successful [Jewish] people in professions of all kinds say the same thing” — that they feel “fundamentally” insecure in the UK.

Does that mean, metaphorically speaking, his bags are packed?

“Yes, I do think that. But very metaphorically because we do very occasionally wonder if we had to go, where we would go.”

Brexit, he feels, has made matters worse generally, widening divisions in society.

“We are,” he warns, “living in dangerous times.”

Looking back, if he has one regret it is that his father never lived to see him sit on the bench. “He would have been absolutely over the moon about it. And the idea that I should end up as I did would have been for him unbelievable.”

Summing up, he counts himself lucky to have had such an interesting judicial career, helping to “nudge the law on a little”.

He says: “I like the process of people having disputes that they can’t resolve referring them to an independent judge and that judge resolving those disputes in a way which is fair and acceptable. I found that very satisfying.”

‘A Judge’s Journey’ is published by Hart

Lord Dyson will be speaking at the Limmud Festival on December 23

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