Dear Lord Denning…

April 2012

McGill law students have a history of paying tribute to Lord Denning, one of the best-known and oft-quoted common law judges in recent memory. In the lead-up to the Faculty’s annual Skit Nite on March 20, Focus online looks at a few student encounters with the beloved British jurist.


Braving the weather in their Lord Denning t-shirts in 1978 to show their love. (Courtesy of Jacqueline Johnson Clifford, BCL’80)

Lord Denning, a man whose judgements have inspired law students around the world and across the decades…
(undated BBC archives photograph)

Lord Denning (right) receiving his LL.D. from McGill Chancellor Howard Ross in 1967 (McGill archival photo, spotted by ‘oeil de lynx’ 1L student L.L. Barone – click to enlarge)

By Victoria Leenders-Cheng

On a blustery day during the winter of 1978, Jacqueline (Johnson) Clifford, BCL’80, and a group of fellow students gathered on the front steps of Old Chancellor Day Hall, shivering in t-shirts and jeans. Waving the British Union Jack and hoisting aloft an image of the young Queen Elizabeth, they grinned at the camera, snapped the photo and then scurried back inside.

Why all the fuss for a simple photo of matching t-shirts?

The image screened onto the shirts was none other than that of Alfred Thompson “Tom” Denning, revered British judge and Master of the Rolls, whose name, to any student of common law, is synonymous with a vision of the law as bold, humorous and enticingly renegade.

Denning presided over the British high courts for almost four decades, from 1944 – 1982 and received an honourary degree from McGill in 1968. Law students first meet his writings in any number of common law classes, from property to torts to criminal procedure, where he distinguishes himself for his notable style and the particular flavour of his opinions.

“In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone,” begins one frequently cited judgment that arbitrates between a homeowner whose property was on the receiving end of stray balls hit off the grounds of a neighboring cricket ground.

“In June 1970, a big earth-moving machine got stuck in the mud. It sank so far as to be out of sight,” begins another judgment, which goes on to state with blunt clarity, “It cost much money to get it out. Who is to pay the cost?”

When Denning died at the age of 100 in 1999, The Guardian memorialized him as “the people’s judge” and the story of the silhouetted t-shirts bears testament to this legacy.

The t-shirt-sporting students, who had previously obtained Denning’s permission to screen his image and to sell the resulting article of clothing to their peers at the Faculty, sent a copy of the winter day’s photo to Denning himself.

A few months later, a hand-written reply arrived:

“Thank you greatly for your exciting photograph – of all of you in your T-shirts,” the letter began, continuing with characteristic understatement: “I am thrilled to have it: and it will find an honoured place in my library – reminding me always of the very best group of the very best students of the very best University in North American or anywhere in the wide world.”

“I hope that when you… come to England – you will please come and see me when I can thank you personally. With much gratitude and very best wishes to you all – for success in your examinations – and for your future careers – and all happiness, Tom Denning.”

The efforts of the group of students in 1978 may be unparalleled, but Denning continues to receive adulation and tribute from admirers at the Faculty.

A suggested Lord Denning Halloween costume from the editors of the Quid Novi in 2009 recommended the following attire: “Wear something you would wear to a cricket match. Or, put on a kilt. Or, just put your hair into rollers and leave them in.”

Denning is also a stock figure for the Faculty’s annual Skit Nite, an evening of comedic songs and sketches by students and professors aimed at raising money for four local charities: Share the Warmth, Le Bon Dieu dans la rue, the Old Brewery Mission and Chez Doris.

At this yearly event, Denning is a recurring presence whose noble demeanour is played for laughs against his British accent (imitated with varying degrees of success) and his attachment to noble ideas about estuaries and estoppel.

A sketch from Skit Nite in 2008, for example, featured students Dorian Needham, Katie Kaufman and Erin Morgan imagining and recreating “A Day in the Life of Lord Denning,” where Denning attempts to establish the jurisdiction of a contract at a fast food drive-through, repeats his turns of phrase about summertime cricket and machines stuck in the mud and enthusiastically plays cricket in the snow.

And as for the students in that 1978 photo, Jacqueline Clifford offers the following epilogue: “I took up Lord Denning’s offer to go to visit him that summer as I went to England to visit my parents after finishing the year at law school.”

“After the court recessed for lunch I spoke to Lord Denning’s clerk. When I said that I was there to meet Lord Denning, he asked me why. I told him the story about the t-shirts and he looked aghast at it – I suppose that he thought it was an inappropriate thing to do!”

Nevertheless, the clerk showed Clifford to Lord Denning’s chambers, and proceeded to point out the framed photo of the group of grinning McGill Law students displayed on the wall of the library, just as Denning’s letter had promised.


Update, March 16, 2012   this article has generated a lot of interest! Cheryl Ann Buckley, BCL’87, LLB’88, sent in this memory:

“One of my best British friends, a buddy from Law School at Exeter in UK, used to live in ‘High Trees,’ the house featured in one of Lord Denning’s famous cases (estoppel if my memory serves me correctly).

Also in our era, Denning was the one who signed one’s admission to the UK Law Society when he was Master of the Rolls. He also was the guest speaker at our infamous Bracton Law Society (Exeter University) end-of-year dinner in ’75. We were callow youths, too drunk to appreciate the grandeur. But his name was spoken in hushed tones when we were students!

Good luck with Skit Nite… Have a great time and raise lots of money!”

Cheryl Ann Buckley, Avocate, LL.B (Exeter, UK), B.C.L., LL.B (McGill)
Director/actor/writer, Skit Nite early 80’s


Skit Nite 2012 will take place at Club Soda on March 20, 2012, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m.

More details at: http://www.lsa-aed.ca/?tribe_events=skit-nite-2012.

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