Freedom Under Law: Tribute to the Rt. Hon. The Lord Steyn, P.C

Freedom Under Law regrets that the founding Chair of its International Advisory Board, Lord Steyn, died in London on 28 November 2017.

Johan van Zijl Steyn was born at Stellenbosch in 1932, his father a founding member of its Faculty of Law. His grandfather was a Boer fighter, imprisoned in the camp at Green Point, Cape Town and exiled to Sri Lanka, where he and four others escaped by swimming ashore from their ship in the notoriously shark-infested Colombo Harbour. They returned via Russia, Europe and what is now Namibia to their astonished fellow commando-members in the Free State. It is said that the latter refused to believe them, given the flatness of the earth.

Lord Steyn studied law at Stellenbosch, and as a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford. Returning to South Africa, and to practice at the Cape Bar, he took silk at the age of 38 in 1970. In later years, he looked back on what is to be learnt from how a government without effective constitutional limitation on its exercise of power “by and large could and did achieve its oppressive purposes by a scrupulous observance of legality. It made an indelible impression on me.”

In 1972 he left South Africa. He began practice anew in London. Quickly he overcame the disadvantages of an unconnected outsider and built up a leading commercial practice. In just six years he became a Queen’s Counsel, and in January 1985 he was offered an appointment by the Lord Chancellor to the select ranks of the Commercial Court. Self-deprecatingly he ascribed his appointment to a simple error in persona: whenever the Lord Chancellor, then Lord Hailsham, met him he called Steyn “Charles”.

After seven years he was elevated to the Court of Appeal and very shortly thereafter was appointed a member of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and a member of the Privy Council.

Lord Steyn is widely regarded as one of the most influential and creative judges of our time. He delivered leading judgments covering a wide range of legal fields. Of course his reputation as a pre-eminent commercial lawyer made this likely in the areas of contract, arbitration and international trade. So, too, his contribution to greater legal harmonisation in Europe, drawing in his own life on scholarship and practice in both civil law and common law systems.

But it is his contribution to public law – that which determines the relationship between citizens and the State – which was least expected and has been most marked.

In the Pinochet case, the House of Lords was confronted with a claim to sovereign immunity – the immunity from prosecution in a foreign country claimed by a head of state. Following the military coup led by General Pinochet in Chile in 1973, more than 4 000 individuals had died or disappeared, invariably in the hands of the secret police. Lord Steyn rejected the ruling of a lower court that there is no justification for reading any limitation based on the nature of the crimes committed into the immunity which exists.

He held: “If a Head of State orders victims to be tortured in his presence for the sole purpose of enjoying the spectacle of the pitiful twitchings of victims dying in agony (what Montaigne described as the farthest point that cruelty can reach) that could not be described as acts undertaken by him in the exercise of his functions as a Head of State … The normative principles of international law do not require that such high crimes should be classified as acts performed in the exercise of the functions of a Head of State.”

He also refused to apply the act of state doctrine to acts condemned as high crimes by customary international law.

Lord Steyn’s contribution to the law is not confined to his judgments. He has written a series of papers and delivered public lectures on equally wide-ranging issues: criminal justice, the roles of the profession and the judiciary, the case for substituting the House of Lords with a Supreme Court, contract and arbitration law, and the interpretation of statutes. Most famously, he delivered the 2003 F.A Mann lecture, which began, as his writing always does, by going directly to the issue: “The most powerful democracy is detaining hundreds of suspected foot soldiers of the Taliban in a legal black hole at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where they await trial on capital charges by military tribunals.”

He criticised the refusal by United States courts to act. These courts considered that although Guantanamo Bay had been occupied by the United States since 1903, it did not constitute American soil: “As a lawyer brought up to admire the ideals of American democracy and justice, I would have to say that I regard this as a monstrous failure of justice.”

Lord Steyn has been described in these words by a leading UK constitutional lawyer, Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell (also a member of FUL’s International Advisory Board): “Fiercely independent, he would sometimes dissent sharply from his brethren when he was unable to persuade them. Ultimately a man of the highest values, and most steadfast commitment to equality, the rule of law and constitutionalism.”

Lord Steyn once said of another that great judges, like great cricketers, select themselves. We mark today one such: an exceptional career in the law, committed to its animating spirit.