IT IS always exciting when a famously brainy person displays the intelligence of an under-achieving amoeba. There is something about such fallibility that gives strength to the rest of us, toiling away in our dull routine, cruelly handicapped by our all too ordinary minds. Lord Hoffman's moral qualities are clear for all to see, and his personal integrity remains unscathed by yesterday's decision to re-open the Pinochet proceedings because of his undeclared connection with Amnesty International. Lord Hoffman's legal virtuosity is legendary and doubtless will remain so, but it is his misfortune that it will be for his political judgement (or rather the lack of it) that he will now forever be remembered.
It is hard to see how Lord Browne-Wilkinson and his colleagues, hearing yesterday's appeal, could have done other than overturn the Lords' earlier ruling. Lord Hoffman had failed to declare both a personal and a family involvement in an organisation that was permitted to address the bench directly from a strongly anti- Pinochet perspective. Not only this, but he was reportedly heavily engaged in the argument in the case in a way that had underpinned that organisation's legal submission. His was the vital vote in a case in which the end result had been very controversial, drawing strong dissenting judgments from two law lords, and being at variance with an earlier ruling by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham and two of his colleagues in the High Court. If justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done, then it is hard to see how the original decision could have been allowed to stand.
The rehearing in the new year will presumably have to disregard the judgements of the first House of Lords decision, treating them as though they have never existed. The rhetoric of Lords Steyn and Nicholls, which so excited the legal world just a few weeks ago, has been consigned by Lord Hoffman's bungle into a kind of legal limbo, from where they must scream silently for the attention of future jurists. The extent to which they are implicitly acknowledged in the fresh judgments will be one of the fascinating aspects of the new hearing. In the longer term, Lord Hoffman may have done his colleagues a good turn by alerting them to how their world has changed. In the latter years of dank Tory rule, the judges became accustomed to participating in civil society as the patrons or supporters of a variety of vaguely liberal bodies, dealing with human rights, European law, penal reform and the like. …