Law lord Johan Steyn was a principled champion of basic human rights, free speech, democracy and the rule of law, and his liberal and often outspoken views angered many, not least the Blair and Bush administrations following the Iraq War and its aftermath.
His outspokenness resulted in the Blair Government breaking with precedent to block his appointment to a House of Lords’ judicial committee. It was the first time that a government had ever sought, and obtained, an alteration in the composition of this judicial committee.
During his 10 years as a law lord, Steyn never opened his mouth in the chamber of the House of Lords, believing that judges should play no part in Parliament. However, throughout his years on the bench, his strongly held views made themselves heard, but only through his court judgments, lectures to lawyers and fellow judges, and articles in academic journals.
He was also a leading advocate of the principle that judges should not defer to Parliament and politicians simply because politicians are accountable to the electorate. Judges too have a duty to the public, he argued, and should not simply take ministers’ word for it, but should probe and seek evidence.
In November 2003, Steyn, a native Afrikaner, made headlines as a serving judge when the international media picked up a lecture to colleagues in which he branded Guantanamo Bay “a monstrous failure of justice, which is a hellhole of utter lawlessness”. He said that America’s trial by military tribunal amounted to “a kangaroo court which makes a mockery of justice”. His card was marked by the British Government.
Steyn then publicly attacked Lord Hoffmann, a fellow law lord and Afrikaner, for suggesting that the courts should not interfere with certain government decisions. “In troubled times,” he noted, “there is an ever-present danger of the seductive but misconceived judicial mindset that ‘after all, we are on the same side as the government’.” This, he added, was a “slippery slope, which tends to sap the will of judges to face up to a government guilty of abuse of power”.
Two years earlier, when Britain introduced executive detention without trial, Steyn had responded by delivering another scathing lecture to the judiciary. He expressed the view that the UK opt-out from the European convention on human rights, which the Government had to do to bring in the legislation, was “not justified”.
To the dismay of many, having already…