Sir Henry Brooke – A Tribute

Richard Susskind, current SCL President, offers a tribute to past president, Sir Henry Brooke CMG PC

On 30 January 2018, SCL members were greatly saddened to learn that Sir Henry Brooke had passed away while undergoing cardiac surgery. Most of us heard the news on Twitter from Sir Henry’s son, Nick Brooke, who wrote as follows: ‘the surgeon says my Dad’s heart was just too big: this won’t come as a surprise to anybody who knew him’. Indeed so. Sir Henry was a remarkably accomplished individual but our memories of him within SCL will be of an unfailingly kind and considerate human being.

He was born on 19 July 1936, educated at Marlborough College (1949-54) and Balliol College Oxford (1957-61), and served in between with the Royal Engineers (1955-1957). He was called to the Bar in 1963, took silk in 1981, and was appointed to the High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) in 1988. He was Chairman of the Law Commission (1993-1995) before being elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1996. Later he held the office of Vice-President of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal (2003-2006).

In the many tributes that have been written to the life and work of Sir Henry, we have read of this illustrious legal career as well as the many and diverse causes and fields to which he gave so much – the prevention of racial discrimination, prison reform, the development of law centres, access to justice, legal aid reform, mediation, and the Slynn Foundation. To name but a few.

Less has been said, however, of his prodigious efforts over the decades to use technology to improve the administration of our courts. His earliest formal contribution to this field was as Chairman of the Bar’s first Computer Committee in 1985. Some years after, in 1992, he became president of SCL and worked tirelessly for our society in this capacity for nine years. In 1997, while still our president, he was appointed as the Judge in Charge of IT, a role that expanded to become the Judge in Charge of Modernisation, which he held until 2004. By that time, he had for three years been the Chair of the Trustees of BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. He stepped down from that position in 2011. For around a quarter of a century, therefore, he was at the heart, and was in many ways the soul, of major projects devoted to the computerization of our justice system.

I first met Henry in the late 80s, at a conference in London on the use of technology in the criminal justice system. We immediately clicked, sharing the conviction that legal practice and the courts could benefit greatly from the application of technology. We worked together on many projects from the early 90s, but most closely in 1992, when he was president of SCL and I was chair. He was an ever-present president, supportive of me and all of the Society’s initiatives. His charming wife, Biddy, often accompanied him to SCL events, which was widely appreciated.

I was struck by Henry’s generosity of spirit. He was warm, kindly, approachable, good-humoured, and always inclined to see the rosy aspects of people and situations. He was a master at bringing together the diverging views of diverging people – as the Judge in Charge of Modernisation, he achieved a level of harmony between the judges and court officials on IT matters that had been barely imaginable in the fraught 90s.

When he stepped down from the Bench, Henry felt able to speak and write more forcefully on a wide range of pressing concerns. This is most visible in his blog, ‘Musings, Memories and Miscellanea’. This is a priceless resource, covering access to justice, diversity, human rights, technology, law reform, mediation, and much else. Each blog is carefully crafted and of publishable quality in its own right. Although it is sad now to browse this site, knowing that he is no longer with us, it should remain as an inspiration to us all. It is a masterclass in intelligent, accessible, and informative prose - https://sirhenrybrooke.me/. Needless to say, he supplemented his blog with a formidable Twitter presence – almost 10,000 followers were able to enjoy his pithy and yet literate tweets (more than 2,000 of them). No senior judge in the world, retired or serving, has engaged so actively and effectively on social media. And so, ineffably tragic as it was to learn of his passing on Twitter, I have the strong sense that Sir Henry would have liked the news to have been released in this way.

The scale of Henry’s social media activity in late life offers a hint at his earlier industry and productivity. He applied himself with singular energy and focus to any task at hand, whether in reviewing the entire history of technology in the courts, or in launching some new initiative or programme of work. Two examples of his determination are still evident to the legal community on a daily basis. The first is paragraph numbering in our law reports, without which it would be impossible to conduct online research of case law. This may now seem unremarkable but Henry himself wrote of ‘the monumental battle we had to wage to persuade some of our most senior judges to introduce paragraph numbering into their judgments’. This battle took place in the late 90s, when most judges were steadfastly in opposition to this typographical innovation (as they saw it), unable to see the benefits of online legal research. But through sheer grit and power of persuasion, Henry prevailed, supported initially by Lord Bingham, when Lord Chief Justice, and later by his successor, Lord Woolf, who issued the victorious practice direction in 2001 (All England Law Reports/2001/Volume 1 /Practice Note (judgments: neutral citation) - [2001] 1 All ER 193). Characteristically, Lords Bingham and Woolf had needed little encouragement – they heard the case for paragraph numbering, understood it immediately, and stood behind Henry.

The second illustration of Henry’s perseverance was his relentless support for the development of BAILII, the online service that offers free access to British and Irish legal materials, including large bodies of legislation and case law. In November 1999, Henry chaired the meeting at Chatham House that led to the launch of the system in the first place. He went on to chair the BAILII board for a decade. For many lawyers and lay people, this system has been the only affordable way of accessing the law of our land.

Even in the darkest hours of our attempts to modernise the courts, Henry remained positive. In one of his best papers, ‘Technology and the Judicial Process’ (published in a festschrift for Sir Brian Neill, edited by Lord Saville and me), Henry charted 15 years of progress in computerising the court system. But, with evident emotion, he lamented the news on 15 July 2002, that the Government had earmarked no extra money for modernising the civil and family courts. As he put it, ‘the bubble burst’. He concluded that paper by saying it would be wrong ‘to despair too much’ despite the fact that ‘(in) July 2002 other social needs were adjudged by our rulers to have a higher priority than the need to provide a system of justice for the citizen which is not totally overwhelmed by mountains of paper. Perhaps in my lifetime, if not now in my judicial lifetime, a brighter future will really arrive’.

It is heartening to confirm that Henry did catch a glimpse of that brighter future to which he had pointed us. In November 2015, when the Spending Review of HM Treasury announced that the UK Government would be investing ‘more than £700 million to modernize and fully digitize the courts’, Henry wrote that ‘there was at last to be real progress in meeting the challenges involved in modernising the courts’. That said, he was not popping the champagne corks. He wisely went on to warn that his papers over the years ‘show that what we will be undertaking here will simply enable us to catch up with other jurisdictions whose political and financial governance was wiser than ours.’

He seemed more convinced and enthused by the Online Courts Hackathon that SCL hosted in July 2017. Henry attended towards the end of the event and smiled throughout as a new generation of legal technologists presented promising ideas for the court system of the future. Like the late Sir Brian Neill, with whom he sat, Henry should rightly have regarded the outcome of the Hackathon as the fruits of his own labour. In his blog, Henry later wrote of a conversation that he and Brian enjoyed in the taxi home. ‘We reminisced about the days when we would be lucky if we attracted seven people to a meeting to discuss possible uses of applied technology in support of the courts. This week’s event was heavily over-subscribed, and 200 would-be participants had to be turned away.’ He seemed pleased.

My last contact with Henry was early in the evening of 26 January 2018. He had been in touch to tell me about his surgery and to ask if I might offer some help to an overseas judge he had been advising. In his final message, he spoke positively about the surgical team, he asked after one of my sons, and he concluded by saying, ‘Love to you both’. This exchange was typical – generous, affectionate, and focussed on the interests of others. He was a very fine man and will be deeply missed in the world of computers and law.

On behalf of SCL, I send our heart-felt condolences to Biddy and the Brooke family.


Published: 2018-05-30T10:00:00

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