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Harry Woolf, Baron Woolf

Harry Woolf, Baron Woolf

Lawyer, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Lawyer, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales
A.K.A. Woolf of Barnes, Harry Woolf
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Politician Judge
Gender male
Birth 2 May 1933 (Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, North East England)
Star sign Taurus
Education University College London, Fettes College
The details

Harry Kenneth Woolf, Baron Woolf CH PC FBA FMedSci (Chinese: 伍爾夫; born 2 May 1933), was Master of the Rolls from 1996 until 2000 and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 2000 until 2005. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 made him the first Lord Chief Justice to be President of the Courts of England and Wales. He was a Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong from 2003 to 2012.

He now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.

Early life

Woolf was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 2 May 1933, to Alexander Susman Woolf and his wife Leah (née Cussins). His grandfather Harry was a naturalised Briton of Polish or Russian Jewish origins. His father had been a fine art dealer, but was persuaded to run his own building business instead by his wife. They had four children, but their first child died, and his mother was protective of the three surviving children. Woolf lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne until he was about five years old, when his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland and he then went to Fettes College, an Edinburgh public school, where he mostly enjoyed his time and had supportive friends.

Woolf formed much of his sense of justice and fairness from his experiences at Fettes College. On one occasion while combing his hair, Woolf leaned into a neighbouring dormitory cubicle to use the mirror. A prefect reported this as the school had strict rules about being in other pupils' cubicles, but Woolf felt that he had not broken the rules because he did not have his feet inside the cubicle at the time. He appealed for fairness, but his housemaster, who had been in the army, increased Woolf's punishment from six strikes of the cane to eight.

Woolf had read books about lawyers and wanted to be a barrister. His housemaster told him that this was not a suitable career-choice for him because he had a stutter, but this only made Woolf more determined in his vocation. His A level results gained him a place at the University of Cambridge; however, he studied law at University College London (UCL) instead as a consequence of his parents' move to London at about that time.

Legal career

Woolf chose to be a barrister in 1955 and started working on the Oxford circuit. He became Junior Counsel to the Inland Revenue (Common Law) from 1973–74, and was First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law) from 1974–79. In 1979, aged 45, he was appointed as a Queen's Bench Division High Court judge.

He was promoted to Lord Justice of Appeal and was made a member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (PC) in 1986.

Lord Justice Woolf was appointed to hold a five-month public inquiry with Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim, into the disturbances at Strangeways prison, Manchester and other prisons between 11 June on 31 October 1990. His inquiry sent letters to every prisoner and prison officer in the country. The Woolf Report, quoting many of the 1700 replies, was published on 25 February 1991, and blamed the loss of control of the Strangeways prison on the prison officers abandoning the gates outside the chapel, which "effectively handed the prison to the prisoners". More fundamentally, however, Sir Harry blamed the "intolerable" conditions inside Strangeways in the months leading up to the riots and a "combination of errors" by the prison staff and Prison Service management as a central contributing factor. Finally, he blamed the failure of successive governments to "provide the resources to the Prison Service which were needed to enable the Service to provide for an increased prison population in a humane manner". Woolf recommended major reform of the Prison Service, and made 12 key recommendations with 204 accompanying proposals. He subsequently became patron of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust and an Ambassador for the Prison Advice and Care Trust.

Woolf LJ was appointed a Law Lord on 1 October 1992, being created a life peer as Baron Woolf, of Barnes in the London Borough of Richmond. However Woolf gave few judgments on the Appellate Committee, being promoted Master of the Rolls from 4 June 1996 until 6 June 2000, when he finally succeeded Lord Bingham of Cornhill as Lord Chief Justice.

In 2003 he was appointed a Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong, which position he held until 2012.

In this most senior judicial post, Woolf spoke out at the University of Cambridge in 2004 against the Constitutional Reform Bill that would create a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to replace the House of Lords as the final court of appeal in the United Kingdom; and he severely questioned the Lord Chancellor's and the Government's handling of recent constitutional reforms. He delayed his retirement as Lord Chief Justice until these issues had been resolved.

Woolf was also the head of the committee that modernised civil procedure, and incidentally excised most Latin terms from English law in an effort to make it more accessible (such as changing the word "plaintiff" to "claimant"). The Civil Procedure Rules 1998 are a direct result of this work.

On his retirement as Lord Chief Justice on 1 October 2005, Woolf joined Blackstone Chambers as a mediator and arbitrator. From September to December 2005 he conducted a review of the working methods of the European Court of Human Rights, and he is chairman of the Bank of England Financial Markets Law Committee.

Among other work, Woolf has been serving as Chancellor of the Open University of Israel since 2004. He is Chairman of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Chairman of the Council of University College, London and a visiting Professor of Law. He is a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee.

In 2006 he was chairman of the Judging Panel of the FIRST Responsible Capitalism Awards. On 25 February 2007, Woolf was inaugurated as the first President of the Qatar Financial Centre Civil and Commercial Court, in Doha Qatar.

On 15 June 2007, he took the chair of an Ethics Committee set up by BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms company, in response to allegations of multimillion-pound bribery in arms deals with Saudi Arabia.. This Woolf Committee reported in May 2008, and clearly influenced the Law Commission report proposing anti-corruption and bribery law reforms on 20 November 2008 and the Government's consequent Bribery Bill published on 25 March 2009, which was ultimately enacted as the Bribery Act.

In 2007 he was named as co-chair, with Professor Kaufmann-Kohler, of the Commission on Settlement in International Arbitration, for the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution for which he also consults.

From 29–31 May 2009, Woolf served with Sir William Blair, a High Court Judge, as the Co-Convener of the inaugural Qatar Law Forum of Global Leaders in Law, held in Doha, Qatar.

Selected judgments

  • On 26 July 1983, Woolf's judgement in the high court, Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbech AHA & DHSS [1983] 3 WLR (QBD), clarified the law under which doctors could prescribe contraception to minors.
  • On 6 February 1997, three judges, led by Woolf, Master of the Rolls, said that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) had failed to exercise discretion when it denied Diane Blood the right to have her dead husband's child in March 1995. The decision allowed Blood to have a child using her former husband's sperm, which was obtained shortly before he died.
  • Pearce v United Bristol Healthcare NHS Trust [1999] PIQR 53.
  • In October 2000, Woolf reduced the minimum sentence of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of James Bulger by two years in recognition of their good behaviour and remorse shown while in detention, effectively restoring the original trial judge's eight-year recommended minimum sentence.
  • In July 2002, Woolf, together with Mr Justice Curtis and Mr Justice Henriques, refused Barry George's first appeal against his conviction for the murder of Jill Dando. However, in November 2007, the next Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, in the light of further expert opinions of the forensic evidence, declared George's conviction "unsafe" and also ordered a retrial. George was held in custody pending retrial and following an eight-week hearing he was acquitted on 1 August 2008.

Other judgements include:

  • Vaughan v Barlow Clowes International Ltd [1991] EWCA Civ 11 - English trusts law, concerning tracing
  • Fitzpatrick v British Railways Board [1992] ICR 221, [1992] IRLR 376 - UK labour law, concerning collective bargaining

Personal life

Woolf, an Ashkenazi Jew, first met his wife Marguerite Sassoon, a Sephardi Jew, at a social event which was organised by a mutual friend at the National Liberal Club. They married early in 1961 and have three sons who have all entered the legal profession, as well as seven grandchildren.

Woolf was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000 and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) in 2002.

In the 2015 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH). In the same year, he was awarded the Gold Bauhinia Star by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.


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