15 MARCH 1975, Page 22


Crime and consequences

The judges we deserve

lain Scarlet

It is a truism that society gets the criminals it deserves and it's often enough suggested that we get the police we deserve too. But what of the judges? Do we deserve them? And if so, you may well ask, what have we done to deserve them?

These are questions Lord Chief Justice Widgery — four unimpressive years in the hot seat but plenty still to go — might well ponder during the months ahead as he awaits the E8,000 (40 per cent) increase in his stipend. For even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Queen's Bench Division he cannot be unaware that public respect for criminal justice and the judges that dispense it is on the skids. And at the rate of £27,000 a year the taxpayers may shortly expect him to start doing something about it.

That being so, I have some suggestions to offer for his consideration. But beforehand let me make certain things clear. I do not question the general integrity of the Bar, or indeed of the professional Bench drawn from its membership. But I am not alone in wondering whether a career at the Bar culminating in appointment to judicial office qualifies a man, or even a statutory woman, to decide the best means of disposing of those convicted before them.

Nor do I think that the law is an ass. But the fact remains that lawyers frequently make asses of it and judges not infrequently make asses of themselves.

Having said that, my first suggestion must obviously concern the training of those barristers who, according to recent statistics, have a one in four chance of being elevated to the judiciary. At the moment they are all required to be academically qualified in law, to be a member of one of the four Inns of Court, and to eat a minimum of thirty-six dinners in hall, this latter requirement presumably being designed to get them properly institutionalised.

After that, however, they can start to practise seriously. But if anyone thinks that that means they come into contact with offenders — or as some judges will still have it, the 'criminal classes' — they can think again.

For the truth is that the great majority of those who become judges have never even practised at the criminal bar. (Lord Widgery himself, for instance, specialised in local government and planning, while his predecessor Lord Parker had to admit that the first summing up to a criminal jury he ever heard was his own, ha ha.) But even those who do practise in the criminal courts lead such structured lives that they accept instructions only through a solicitor, seldom meet their client for the first time more than an hour before the case is due, hardly ever visit prisons or their clients' homes, certainly never have an informal discussion with them over a pint. Worse, they never have any direct contact with probation officers, social workers, or even police.

Yet there are still learned nincompoops about who maintain that twelve or fifteen years of working in this kind of vacuum fits a lawyer not only to preside over a trial but then sentence a convicted offender.

And unfortunately the fact that it doesn't only becomes glaringly apparent when some judge makes a total ass of himself and English justice by either making a remark which shows how out of touch he is with the real world in which people live, or imposes on some poor benighted individual a sentence so obviously inappropriate that public opinion has to step in and protest.

However, there is one very sim

pie thing which Lord Widgery could do that might improve the situation. Society has a great need these days for intelligent people to take part in community projects, to help out in our grossly understaffed penal institutions, to act as auxiliaries to probation officers and other social workers, to advise deprived and other inadequate citizens.

So if the LCJ were to devise a scheme by which barristers who indicated their desire for eventual appointment to the Bench could be seconded, for periods of up to a year and at public expense, to participate in these and similar activities — well, at least their breadth of experience would be the greater for it; and ultimately the Bench itself would benefit.

So that's the first thing.

Secondly comes something even more important. Before being appointed to the judiciary barristers should be withdrawn from practise and be dispatched to some reputable university to do a crash course on all aspects of criminology; and like everyone else seeking qualifications in an increasingly specialised society, they should be examined not only on their studies but on their aptitude for the job to which they aspire.

Now I don't expect Lord Widgery — or for that matter anyone else in the cloistered Inns of Court — to like these suggestions very much. After all, it was the lawyers who invented and perfected the principle of the 'closed shop' and they don't take kindly to interference from outsiders, preferring to muddle along in what virtually amounts to the only way they presently know how.

But I have one further suggestion nevertheless, and it concerns the act of sentencing itself. Nowadays most judges sentence immediately after the jury has returned its verdict. They are inclined to maintain that they have read such social inquiry and medical reports as may be available to them during the trial, and that they have done all the necessary thinking about the sentence while the jury was out deliberating.

Well, this simply isn't good enough. I maintain that the sentence, of itself, is of sufficient importance both to the community in general and the individual offender in particular that the trial judge should be forced to take into account the views of independent assessors; that he should have what Harold Wilson would call 'full and frank discussions' with those assessors before deciding what to do; and that if he decides to ignore the advice offered to him he should have to state his reasons for doing so in writing.

Oh, yes, and could we have more judges appointed while they've still got some life left in them and before they reach the male menopause ...?

Think on't, Lord Widgery. Only by such reforms will English justice be dragged screaming into the 1970s and a restored public repute. And your tenure of an ancient office assured of honourable mentions in future Spectator dispatches.

My lord, let society deserve you, at least.