BENCHERS – On the Appointment of Sir Dennis Byron CJ to be a Bencher of the Inner Temple
By Justice Don Mitchell
News has just been received that Sir Dennis Byron, CJ, has been appointed a Master of the Bench of the Inner Temple. What does that mean?
Located on prime property between Fleet Street and the Thames, Inner Temple is one of the Inns of Court – the only institutions permitted to call lawyers to the bar of England and Wales. All students in England or Wales intending to be barristers must join one of the Inns. There are four Inns of Court. They are the Middle and Inner Temples, Lincoln’s Inn, and Gray’s Inn.
They are called Inns of Court because in the earliest days, the study of law was quite informal and disorganized. Students of law learned their law by sitting at dinner with the judges on their circuits when they stayed at various inns, and asked them questions. Until recently, no matter how well you had done at your exams, you were not permitted to be called to the bar unless you had eaten a prescribed number of dinners at your Inn.
The Inner and Middle Temples are so-called because their property originally belonged to the mysterious order of the Knights Templar, made famous for their exploits during the time of the Crusades. When King Henry VIII confiscated the property of the monasteries during the Reformation, he gave their property to the lawyers who practiced at the Royal Courts. The church of the Knights is still in use by those who live and work in the surrounding area.
The barristers who practice in the Royal Courts of London occupy chambers in or near to one or the other of these Inns of Court. The four Inns are clustered around the Royal Courts, within easy reach for the barristers.
Since at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, these Inns of Court have formed a set of colleges for the study of the law. They are not called a University because they have never been incorporated. Each is an independent institution with an ancient history. Each has its dining hall, its library, and its chapel. Like a university college, each Inn was enclosed and had its garden.
The Inner Temple is separated from the Embankment by the famous Temple Gardens. Here it was that Shakespeare placed the conflict which began the Wars of the Roses as the opposing factions plucked white or red roses as badges of allegiance. Illustrious members of the Inner Temple include Geoffrey Chaucer; and, Sir Edward Coke, CJ, “father of the common law.”
The Inns are governed by the Masters of the Bench, or “benchers.” There are some 200 benchers who run the Inner Temple. Among them are some of Britain’s best known lawyers: the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irving, and both his immediate predecessors; Lord Woolf, the architect of recent legal reforms; the former vice-president of the European Commission, Lord Brittan; the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard; and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Benchers devote a considerable portion of their time to the Inn. Specifically, they manage the property: they lease office space to sets of barristers, and ensure compliance with heritage regulations, while, say, accommodating net IT projects. Others oversee training courses, and the remainder apply themselves to allocating scholarships with a total value of £600,000.00.
Sir Dennis may not have many opportunities to join his fellow benchers as they sit at their high oak table – made for them at the order of Queen Elizabeth I from a tree in the royal gardens – in the great hall looking down on the members of the bar and mere students as they dine. But, we hope that on his occasional visit to London he will be able to take his seat among the other eminent members of the profession to whom have been granted this special honour and recognition.
25 February 2004