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Sir Oliver Bury Popplewell is a former British judge and cricket player. He chaired the inquiry into the Bradford City stadium fire, presided over the libel case brought by Jonathan Aitken MP against The Guardian newspaper which eventually led to Aitken's imprisonment for perjury, and was widely reported for asking "What is Linford's lunchbox?" during a case over which he was presiding, brought by Linford Christie. He played first-class cricket for Cambridge University and was president of the Marylebone Cricket Club from 1994-96. He wrote a book about his legal career.
Popplewell's father was a civil servant. A widower, Sir Oliver remarried fellow-barrister Dame Elizabeth Gloster in March 2008. He is the father of four sons, the eldest of whom is the Cambridge University and Somerset cricketer, Nigel Popplewell, and another of whom (Andrew) is also a High Court Judge. He has 13 grandchildren amongst whom is the actress Anna Popplewell.
Popplewell went to Charterhouse School as a scholar, where he played cricket with Peter May and future politician Jim Prior, and after spending two years of National Service in the Royal Navy, he went to Queens' College, Cambridge as an exhibitioner. He was awarded a BA degree in 1950 and an LL.B. in 1951.
Popplewell was called to the bar in 1951. He became a Queen's Counsel in 1969. After serving as Recorder of Burton upon Trent and Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions, he was appointed as Recorder of the Crown Court in 1971. He was a High Court judge from 1983 until 2003. During this time, he chaired the Bradford Inquiry into Crowd Control and Safety at Sports Grounds in 1985. He became president of the Employment Appeal Tribunal and vice-chairman of the Parole Board in 1986, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in 1996.
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In 1975 he defended his godson Stephen Fry, who was 18 at the time, at his trial for credit card fraud. Popplewell and his wife had long been friends of Fry's parents. Stephen Fry writes about the event in his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot.
Following the fire at Valley Parade, the Bradford City stadium, on 11 May 1985, Popplewell was chosen to chair an inquiry held under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. Following this inquiry, he was chosen to chair a Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds. In 1999, he donated the papers of the inquiry to the University of Bradford. A copy of the Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds' Interim Report is published online in PDF format by the Bradford City Fire website.
While presiding over the High Court case brought by the athlete Linford Christie against former criminal John McVicar, the editor of Spike magazine, he was widely reported as asking, "What is Linford's lunchbox?". He later claimed that this was intended as a joke. The question was in the tradition of British jurisprudence, in which the judge asks seemingly inane questions relevant to the facts of the case on the assumption that the jury, which cannot ask questions, is ignorant of them. Following this case, the name "Mr Justice Cocklecarrot" was revived by Private Eye magazine (it was originally the name of a character in the Beachcomber column in the Daily Express) which became the magazine's generic name for unworldly and out-of-touch judges, though Popplewell asserts that this description did not apply to him.
He upheld Reynolds Defence, established in the House of Lords in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd in 1999, in an action against the Yorkshire Post for reporting that a local karate company was selling "rip-off" lessons.
Since his retirement, Popplewell has spoken up for the right of judges to impose the sentences they see fit. He had an argument with Home Secretary David Blunkett who was seeking to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for some serious crimes.
Hillsborough controversy and the Bradford City stadium fire developments
On 19 October 2011 he sparked fury by calling on the Liverpool families involved in the Hillsborough disaster to behave more like the relatives of victims of the Bradford City stadium disaster. He made the comments in a letter to The Times following the Commons debate on 17 October 2011 calling for all Cabinet papers on Hillsborough to be released. He said: "The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage. They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries".
His letter was published by the Times sister paper, The Sun, which is boycotted on Merseyside, the day after it was revealed to Parliament that senior policemen had changed the evidence of junior policemen whose evidence contradicted the official version given to the press by police spokesmen. Popplewell was widely criticised for his comments, including a rebuke from a survivor of the Bradford stadium disaster.
In April 2015 Popplewell expressed the view that it was "bizarre" to suggest that the Bradford City stadium fire was anything other than accidental. This was in response to the publication of an article in The Guardian newspaper of an extract from a new book "Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire" by Martin Fletcher, revealing new information about 8 previous fires allegedly connected to the Bradford City owner and chairman, Stafford Heginbotham (who died in 1995),
Popplewell later qualified his remark and suggested that the police should look into the “remarkable number” of fires allegedly connected to Bradford City’s then chairman “to see if there was anything sinister”. He had earlier said that he remained convinced that the fire was “undoubtedly” started by accident by a discarded match or cigarette, despite the new evidence.
- Benchmark: A Life in the Law by Oliver Popplewell (foreword by Stephen Fry) Publisher: I.B. Tauris (30 June 2003); ISBN 978-1-86064-886-1
- Football in Its Place: An Environmental Psychology of Football Grounds by David Canter, Miriam Comber and David L. Uzzell with an introduction by Sir Oliver Popplewell, Publisher: Taylor & Francis (1989); ISBN 978-0-415-01240-9
- Dyer, Clare (20 May 2003). "The real world of Oliver Popplewell". The Guardian. Guardian Newspapers. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- "Brief affair ends with a wedding". The Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers Ltd. 1 February 2008. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
- "Teams played for by Oliver Popplewell". CricketArchive. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- Kay, Richard (19 February 2007). "Sir Oliver enters a new reality". The Daily Mail – Ramsay's brotherly nightmare. London: Associated Newspapers. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
- "Benchmark: Life, Laughter and the Law (Hardcover)". Synopsis. Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- "The Honourable Sir Oliver Popplewell". ADR Chambers International. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- Johnson, Rachel (1 November 2003). "The oldest fresher in town". The Spectator. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
- Burns, Emma (10 May 2005). "The old course at St Andrews?". The Times. London, UK: Times Newspapers. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
- Oliver Popplewell at cricinfo.com
- op cit.
- "Cambridge University v Marylebone Cricket Club". CricketArchive. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- "The Papers of the Popplewell Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds". Library – Special Collections. University of Bradford. 13 December 2007. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety and Control at Sports Grounds' Interim Report, bradfordcityfire.co.uk, 29 September 2012; accessed 7 April 2016.
- Legal legend and the 'lunchbox' question, business.timesonline.co.uk, 20 May 2003.
- The real world of Oliver Popplewell, guardian.co.uk, 20 May 2003.
- "United Kingdom: Privilege, And This Time We Mean It". Media & Entertainment. Mondaq. 17 May 2007. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
- Blunkett branded 'a whiner', bbc.co.uk, 14 May 2003.
- "Hillsborough decision 'a victory for democracy'". BBC. 18 October 2011. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
- "Former judge tells Hillsborough families to drop 'conspiracy theories'". London, UK: The Guardian. 19 October 2011. Retrieved 7 April 2016.
- Holehouse, Matthew (19 October 2011). "Sir Oliver Powell outrages campaigners with comments". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
- Conn, David (20 October 2011). "Bradford fire survivor attacks judge over Hillsborough comments". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 20 October 2011.