Igor Judge is turning out to be a really rather good Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Despite his well-deserved reputation for upholding tough sentences, he knows when to be merciful: in January, Lord Judge suspended the prison term imposed on Munir Hussain for inflicting serious injuries on an escaped intruder.
And this sensitivity to the public mood was demonstrated again the following month when the Lord Chief Justice lent his weight to a case involving an arcane point of libel law, not the natural territory of a criminal specialist. Sitting with Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley — who must have supplied much of the legal reasoning as well as the quotation from Milton's Areopagitica — he delivered a much-praised judgment on Maundy Thursday.
The point at issue was whether a short passage published in the comment section of the Guardian in April 2008 was indeed comment or, in reality, an allegation of fact. On this subtle distinction a huge amount turned.
What the science writer Simon Singh had written in the newspaper was: "The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."
According to Mr Justice Eady, this was "a matter of verifiable fact". That meant there could be a lengthy hearing at which the association would call experts to prove that chiropractic could help children with colic and Singh would call experts to show it could not. Unless the writer could prove that his facts were true, the association would win the libel claim it had brought against him.
As the Court of Appeal noted, libel judges have sometimes found themselves cast in the role of historian or investigative journalist: one thinks of David Irving's case against Deborah Lipstadt, which established in 2000 that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier" as well as "anti-Semitic and racist". But these were cases in which defendants had made clear assertions of highly damaging fact. What Singh had written, in the view of the appeal judges, was opinion.