Guilty pleasure of finding out what judges REALLY think
By Graham Grant
IT is probably an urban myth but one that seems to have the ring of truth — the story of the judge who hadn’t heard of the Beatles.
The embarrassed and somewhat understated reply from the barrister was: ‘I believe they are a popular beat combo, m’lud’.
But it is certainly true that Judge Sir Jeremiah Harman asked: ‘Is it an opera?’, upon hearing football star Paul Gascoigne’s nickname, ‘Gazza’.
And in a libel case brought by sprinter Linford Christie, Mr Justice Popplewell asked: ‘What is “Linford’s lunchbox?”, to which Christie deadpanned: ‘It’s a reference to my genitals, my lord.’
All of these stories help to cement the traditional image of the judge as occupying a rarefied realm, far above the common herd.
Masters of the law, while unable to deny their sizeable salaries, may baulk at this caricature and rightly point out the Herculean workloads and harrowing cases many of them confront on a daily basis.
And then there is the ever-lurking possibility of being summoned to head a government inquiry, as Lady Smith discovered recently when she was appointed to chair the SNP’s shambolic child abuse probe.
But it is hard to dispel the perception of the judge living in splendid isolation, disconnected from the ‘real world’; indeed Lady Smith once spoke of how she would be unlikely to venture into Tesco as her housekeeper bought her groceries.
Lately, however, there has been an unexpected outbreak of honesty among judges and indeed sheriffs — making them seem just a little more human.
No doubt some of the frank talk emanating from the bench would have had judges of yesteryear spluttering into their sherries in the lounge of their New Town club — but for the rest of us it makes a refreshing change.
Earlier this month, judge Patricia Lynch QC received widespread praise for the robust way she dealt with John Hennigan when sentencing him for his ninth breach of an anti-social behaviour order in 11 years.
During sentencing, the 50-year-old defendant told her she was a ‘bit of a ****’, to which she responded: ‘You are a bit of a **** yourself. Being offensive to me does not help.’
Hennigan, who has convictions for no less than 47 offences involving racism and anti-social behaviour, then shouted back: ‘Go f*** yourself’, to which the judge replied: ‘You too.’
After the extraordinary exchange, Hennigan banged on the glass panel of the dock before performing a Nazi salute. He twice shouted ‘Sieg Heil’ and then started to sing: ‘Jews, gas them all.’
Judge Lynch was unperturbed and, speaking in a measured tone, simply turned to the guards at Chelmsford Crown Court in Essex and said sarcastically: ‘We are all really impressed. Take him down.’
Thousands of people have written messages on internet forums and social media in support of the judge, with many praising her as a ‘hero’ and an ‘idol’.
Inevitably, the judge was then told she faced an investigation by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, after it received several complaints about her choice of language.
This story subverts our natural expectation of judicial behaviour but Judge Lynch also seemed to act as a spokesman for the outraged community she serves.
For a fleeting moment there was a sense of real connection between the bench and ‘normal’ humanity — fed up with yobbery and desperate for someone to give voice to their anger.
In the same spirit, High Court judge Norman Ritchie, QC, gave a thug a taste of his own medicine last week.
After avoiding jail first for a brutal assault and then another twice for refusing to carry out his community service, David Newlands couldn’t resist mocking the system online.
But his lucky streak came to an abrupt end when, hours after walking free from his second appearance at court for failing to carry out the community service order, Newlands boasted on social media: ‘I’m out bro, easy.’
Unfortunately for him, social workers spotted his comments and the sheriff was informed.
Newlands, 24 — who could never be accused of being a criminal mastermind — also mocked the justice system online.
Sitting at the High Court in Glasgow, judge Ritchie told him: ‘It’s always interesting to see a different view on sentencing, as in “I’m out bro easy”. As they say, LOL [internet slang for ‘laughing out loud’, m’lud].’
Jailing Newlands, he added: ‘I hope you don’t think I’m doing this out of anger. In truth it enlivened what was otherwise a dull day.’
It is hard to image that apocryphal judge who hadn’t heard of the Beatles having the savvy to know about internet abbreviations.
Judge Ritchie’s plain talk — and his relish in meting out richly deserved justice to Newlands — were unusual, and deeply satisfying.
Sometimes, of course, those who no longer sit on the bench can be the most honest and open about their views.
Recently retired sheriff Richard Davidson was admirably forthright when he said — after leaving his post — that capital punishment would have had ‘some merit’ in cases he heard over his long career.
He spent most of his career in Dundee and hit the headlines with a series of controversial remarks and decisions.
In 2004, he was widely criticised for telling a bride she did not have enough cleavage to fill her wedding dress.
The comments were made to Margaret Christie after she was asked to wear the dress in court as she sued the supplier.
In 2009, he accused a mixed-race mother fighting a child-access dispute of behaving like Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
He also told Tina Monem that if she did not accept his ruling, she could ‘go to Zimbabwe’.
But his biggest controversy came in 2013 after clearing a Celtic fan of singing sectarian songs during a Boxing Day match with Dundee.
He said the legislation was poorly drafted, adding: ‘Somehow the word “mince” comes to mind.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some within the legal fraternity feared the sheriff had been pushed into retiring, a claim he dismissed.
Such spells of judicial honesty happen periodically, it seems, as in 2008 at Selkirk Sheriff Court, when Sheriff Kevin Drummond condemned his own job as a ‘charade’.
He said the policy of early release made a mockery of his position because criminals he locked up were freed again within months, a practice that persists for the vast majority of criminals despite repeated SNP pledges to axe it.
He spoke out after a fire-raiser was released early wearing an electronic tag and was later caught dealing drugs.
Sheriff Drummond said: ‘I would be failing in my duty to the public if I did not make it clear that, in my opinion, judicial disposals are largely meaningless and the system is being brought into disrepute.’
The SNP’s attempt at allaying public fears and confusion over sentencing was the much-delayed creation of the Scottish Sentencing Council, which first met in December last year.
The costly quango’s noble objective — to create ‘the most transparent criminal justice system possible’ — was somewhat undermined when it emerged the public had been banned from its meetings. So much for transparency.
Ultimately this is why the recent bout of plain-talking in our courts is so welcome.
It reassures us that some of these mysterious, robed figures are also human, and that they share our outrage not only at the criminals but also at the politicians who too often bind their hands.