Ashes and Sparks: Essays on Law and Justice

Michael King takes a look at legal, human rights and societal issues from a lawyer's perspective

May 5, 2011

Stephen Sedley - the Right Honourable Lord Justice Sedley of the Court of Appeal - has been writing widely on legal and non-legal matters ever since his barrister days. Many of the book reviews and essays in this volume were originally published in the London Review of Books; most of the other pieces are talks and lectures that he has given in various parts of the world. What is so remarkable about Sedley's career is that his political affiliation (as a former member of the Communist Party) did not, as he and most others anticipated at the time, rule out his appointment to the senior bench. Indeed, when asked by an official from the Lord Chancellor's Department if he was serious about becoming a judge, he replied, "I am far too left wing" - to which the official's response was, "If people are straight and competent, we're not interested in politics".

As a writer, Sedley is certainly straight and competent. He is also a fan of the lessons of history, and many of these essays recall an episode, quotation or legal case from the past, from which he goes on to draw an analogy with contemporary events. Combine this with an impeccable literary style and a nice turn of phrase and it is easy to see why he is so greatly admired by his legal colleagues.

However, whether all this is enough to make the publication of this collection of 38 essays written over 23 years a worthwhile venture is questionable. No one would begrudge Sedley the opportunity to champion human dignity or express his belief in the organic progress of society and its institutions. The main problem here is that, despite his obvious wisdom and erudition and the breadth of the topics that he covers, Sedley's perspective on the world is still very much that of a lawyer. Complex issues are not so much simplified as presented in a form that makes it all too easy to judge who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and which ideas or beliefs are right and which wrong.

Take, for example, an essay on censorship, in which he rightly pillories the media for their distortion of scientific information, as in the MMR vaccine scandal. Nobody would argue with his judgement here, but he then goes on to draw a more general lesson - that there are beliefs that are negotiable and contingent and then there are facts, which are not.

Facts, for Sedley, are what scientists produce from "rational inquiry". Their existence gives people an "inalienable human right" to such information, unadulterated by press and political censorship. It takes the mindset of a lawyer (or perhaps a politician) to make such a clear-cut distinction and to portray scientific research as the exercise of pure intellectual endeavour, the results of which can be communicated without interpretation.

Another telling example is his laudable recognition of the cultural specificity of some human rights, offset less laudably by his championing of universal "shared principles" derived from "the dominant common sense". Whose common sense? That of the legal fiction - the man on the Clapham omnibus?

What about Sedley's personal evolution? Has being elevated in 1999 to the second-highest court in the country changed him? From the evidence of these pieces, the years and judicial office have not dampened his acute sensitivity to instances of injustice, iniquity and inequality or the incisive and witty way in which he condemns them. Only his choice of issues has become somewhat less controversial, but how could it be otherwise?

Ashes and Sparks: Essays on Law and Justice

By Stephen Sedley

Cambridge University Press

446pp, £55.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9781107000957 and 0521170901

Published 3 March 2011

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