His father was Bill Sedley (1910–1985), of a Jewish immigrant family, who operated a legal advice service in the East End of London in the 1930s. In the War he served in North Africa and Italy with the Eighth Army. He founded the firm of lawyers of Seifert and Sedley in the 1940s with Sigmund Seifert and was a lifelong Communist.
After graduation from Queens' College, Cambridge, Stephen Sedley was called to the Bar (Inner Temple) in 1964 and practised in Cloisters chambers with John Platts-Mills, David Turner-Samuels and Michael Mansfield.
Stephen Sedley was one of the foremost advocates of his generation, with a particular interest and expertise in the development of administrative law (the judicial review of governmental and administrative decision making). He was involved in cases which broadened the scope of judicial review and established the modern procedure for judicial review, and in ground-breaking cases in relation to employment rights, sex and race discrimination, prisoners’ rights, coroners’ inquests, immigration and asylum and freedom of speech. He was counsel in many high-profile cases and inquiries, from the death of Blair Peach and the Carl Bridgewater murder appeal to the Helen Smith inquest and the contempt hearing against Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary.
He became a QC in 1983. He was appointed a High Court judge in 1992, serving in the Queen's Bench Division. In 1999 he was appointed to the Court of Appeal as a Lord Justice of Appeal. He was a Judge ad hoc of the European Court of Human Rights and a Member ad hoc of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. His retirement from the Court of Appeal in 2011 coincided with the publication of a collection of his essays and lectures.
Notable judicial opinions
As a first instance judge, Stephen Sedley delivered important judgments in the field of administrative law, notably in relation to the concept of legitimate expectation as a ground for judicial review, and the duty to give reasons.
In the Court of Appeal he was one of the first English judges to recognise the important right of privacy as an aspect of human autonomy and dignity, and was influential in developing the now well-established principle of proportionality (which he memorably described as a "metwand" for balancing competing rights) in the fields of human rights and judicial review. His powerful dissenting judgments in two appeals in 2008 concerning anti-terrorist measures were eventually to be vindicated on appeal to the House of Lords and in the first appeal to be heard by the Supreme Court in 2009. His judgment in the Chagos Islanders litigation developed the ambit of modern judicial review, and in a judgment in 2010 he developed his view that the basis for judicial review is to control abuse of power. He also made a lasting contribution to the field of immigration and asylum law. Always interested in freedom of speech his judgments also made important contributions to the modernisation of libel law. A pithy formulation of the real significance of freedom of expression in a case involving the unlawful arrest of a street preacher has been much quoted: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having”.
An unfailingly courteous and humorous judge, he formulated what has come to be known as Sedley's Laws of Documents after experiencing the tribulations of litigation:
- First Law: Documents may be assembled in any order, provided it is not chronological, numerical or alphabetical.
- Second Law: Documents shall in no circumstances be paginated continuously.
- Third Law: No 2 copies of any bundle shall have the same pagination.
- Fourth Law: Every document shall carry at least 3 numbers in different places.
- Fifth Law: Any important documents shall be omitted.
- Sixth Law: At least 10 per cent of the documents shall appear more than once in the bundle.
- Seventh Law: As many photocopies as practicable shall be illegible, truncated or cropped.
- Eighth Law: At least 80 per cent of the documents shall be irrelevant. Counsel shall refer in Court to no more than 10 per cent of the documents, but these may include as many irrelevant ones as counsel or solicitor deems appropriate.
- Ninth Law: Only one side of any double-sided document shall be reproduced.
- Tenth Law: Transcriptions of manuscript documents shall bear as little relation as reasonably practicable to the original.
- Eleventh Law: Documents shall be held together, in the absolute discretion of the solicitor assembling them, by: a steel pin sharp enough to injure the reader; a staple too short to penetrate the full thickness of the bundle; tape binding so stitched that the bundle cannot be fully opened; or a ring or arch-binder, so damaged that the 2 arches do not meet.
Sedley has provoked considerable debate about the role of government in collecting and keeping DNA samples. At present criminal suspects detained by the police in the UK are automatically given cheek swabs and their DNA kept, in perpetuity, by the government. This has created the situation where different races are differently represented in the United Kingdom National DNA Database. On the grounds that this situation is indefensible, Lord Justice Sedley discussed the case for a blanket DNA collection policy, including collecting samples from all visitors to the UK.
Ian McEwan said of Ashes and Sparks: Essays On Law and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2011) "you could have no interest in the law and read his book for pure intellectual delight, for the exquisite, finely balanced prose, the prickly humor, the knack of artful quotation and an astonishing historical grasp".
In February 2012, the London Review of Books published a magisterial essay by Sedley which amounted to a clinical dissection of soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption’s FA Mann lecture in which Sumption had argued that the judiciary had overstepped the boundary between its legitimate judicial function and illegitimate political decision making in the context of the remedy of judicial review.
- Member, International Commission on Mercenaries, 1976
- Visiting professorial Fellow, Warwick University, 1981
- President, National Reference Tribunals for the Coalmining Industry, 1983-8
- Osgoode Hall, visiting fellow 1985
- A director, Public Law Project, 1989–93
- Distinguished Visitor, Hong Kong University, 1992
- Chair, Bar Council sex discrimination committee, 1992-5
- Vice-President, Administrative Law bar Association, 1992-
- Hon. Fellow, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 1997-
- Laskin Visiting Professor, Osgoode Hall law school, Canada, 1997
- Visiting fellow, Victoria University, NZ, 1998
- President, British Institute of Human Rights, 2000-
- Chair, British Council Committee on Governance, 2002-5
- President, Constitutional Law Association, 2006-
- Visiting Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford, 2012-
- Ashes and Sparks: Essays On Law and Justice. Cambridge University Press. 2011.
- The Seeds of Love: A comprehensive anthology of folk songs of the British Isles compiled and edited by S. Sedley and published in association with the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Essex Music Ltd. 1967.
- A Spark in the Ashes: The Pamphlets of John Warr. Verso Books. 1992.
- The Making and Remaking of the British Constitution. London: Blackstone Press. 1997.
- Freedom, Law and Justice (50th series of Hamlyn lectures).
- Morning Star 7 July 1985
- Encyclopædia Britannica: The Mortgage Strikes
- Diary, Stephen Sedley, London Review of Books, 11 November 1999
- Court of Appeal website
- See e.g. O'Reilly v Mackman  2 AC 237.
- The Independent, 17 September 1992
- Oxford Law: Profile Sir Stephen Sedley
- Thom Dyke, The Guardian, 28 April 2011
- R v Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, ex parte Hamble (Off-shore) Fisheries Ltd.  2 All ER 714.
- R v Higher Education Funding Council, ex parte Institute of Dental Surgery  1 WLR 242.
- Douglas v Hello! Ltd  QB 967.
- Secretary of State for Home Department v AF & Ors  EWCA Civ 1148,  2 WLR 423 and A & Ors v HM Treasury  EWCA Civ 1187,  3 WLR 25.
- R (Bancoult) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No 2)  QB 365.
- Gibb v Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust  IRLR 786 at .
- See e.g. British Chiropractic Association v Singh  1 WLR 133.
- Redmond Bate v DPP (2000) 7 BHRC 375.
- Spigelman J J, "Expert Witnesses: Forensic accounting in an adversary system", NSW Law Society Journal, October 2003, p.60, http://www.lawsociety.com.au/resources/journal/index.htm
- 2004 Leicester University Lecture, published in the London Review of Books, Vol 27, No 2, 20/1/05; Ashes and Sparks pp 213-24. The BBC misreported his views on this issue on 5/9/2007.
- New York Times, 6/12/12.
- London Review of Books, Vol 34, No 4, 23/2/12, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n04/stephen-sedley/judicial-politics