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Stephen Sedley

Human rights lawyer and Patron of Humanists UK

Stephen Sedley was born in 1939 into a secular left wing Jewish family and educated in a Christian public school. By his mid-teens he had concluded that if a God existed, which was doubtful, he didn’t care about the human race. It followed that it was up to humanity to establish its own values and to find its own ways of living decently and peaceably.

He went to Cambridge on a modern languages scholarship and graduated in 1961 with a degree in English. After working as a freelance musician, journalist and interpreter, he was called to the Bar in 1964. As judicial review of government action woke from its long sleep, and race and sex discrimination were outlawed, his common-law practice came to focus on public law and human rights. He took a sabbatical in 1986 to go to Canada to study the newly emerging jurisprudence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and another in 1990 to complete an edition of the works of the Civil War radical writer John Warr.  He became a QC in 1983, a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1989 and a judge of the Queen’s Bench division of the High Court in 1992.

Despite having been a mild ECHR-sceptic, he was put in charge of training the English and Welsh judiciary in preparation for the coming into force of the 1998 Human Rights Act and later became president of the British Institute of Human Rights. In 1989 he was promoted to the Court of Appeal, where he sat until he retired in 2011. He also sat occasionally as a judge of the European Court of Human Rights and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. On his retirement he was appointed a visiting professor at Oxford University, where he delivered the lectures which form the basis of his book “Lions under the Throne: essays on the history of English public law” (Cambridge, 2015).

He has written extensively on the law in legal journals and in the London Review of Books. He has also lectured both in the UK and abroad, delivering among others the Blackstone, Hamlyn, Radcliffe, Atkin and Holdsworth Lectures, and has been given honorary degrees by nine universities in England and Wales. Some of his articles and lectures are collected in “Ashes and Sparks” (Cambridge, 2011).

In retirement he is returning to a longstanding interest in English folksong, following up his 1967 anthology “The Seeds of Love” with a new anthology of traditional songs about crime and punishment.

 

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