This week’s BBC Radio 4 Law in Action returned once again to what presenter Joshua Rozenberg has called the “crisis in the judiciary” (see Weekly Notes — 13 March 2017). This time we heard from Judge Eleri Rees, the Recorder of Cardiff, at the Crown Court there, and from Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, presiding judge on the Midlands Circuit, about their experience of working at the judicial coalface.
Judge Rees described her administrative role in managing her courts, part of which involved distributing work among judges in such a way as to ensure they regularly got a break from the relentless tide of sexual offences which make up around 50% of criminal trials these days. In terms of judicial morale and the media, she said she was prepared to accept that judges might be criticised over their decisions, but the thing she personally found most irritating was when the media described judges as being “out of touch”.
“I’ve spend 40 years in the courts and I think I’ve probably had greater experience than 90 per cent of the population in dealing [with] and seeing people who come from deprived backgrounds, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds; people who have been the victims of abuse; distressed witnesses; defendants who, when you look at their background, the disadvantages some of them have suffered in their earlier lives, it’s not perhaps that surprising that they present as drug addicts or addicted to alcohol or with personality issues. And because I’ve been working with that for 40 years … the one thing that always irritates is to say, well, judges are out of touch.”
Mr Justice Haddon-Cave has tried cases as varied as the legal dispute over the remains of King Richard III, found buried under a Leicester car park (in which he called for, er, “skeleton arguments”), and more recently in the horrific trial of two 14-year-olds for the murder of a mother and her daughter. He discusses the extremely low morale of the judiciary, as reflected in the recent judicial attitudes survey which cites factors such as the reduction in pensions and pay, and the fact that while 40% of judges feel valued by the public, only 2% feel valued by the government and only 3% by the media.
The description of three High Court judges by one newspaper as “Enemies of the People” was, Sir Charles Haddon-Cave said, “a seismic shock for the judiciary”.
“It’s one thing to criticise [judges’] decisions. That’s very healthy. But to attack the judges for doing their job was a step which caused great concern.”
Joshua Rozenberg also spoke to Lord Justice Burnett, vice chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, who admitted that the situation of judicial recruitment was so serious that the JAC now needed to fill something like a quarter (25 out of 108) of the seats on the High Court bench, and at least 117 more circuit judges, again representing 20–25% of the total bench. They also needed another 75 or 80 district judges. Absent suitable candidates, they would not consider lowering the bar to applicants; but they might need to rely more on filling the gaps with deputy and part-time judges. The problem was that, across the range of posts, there were simply not enough good candidates to choose from.
In short, as Sir Charles Haddon-Cave had said earlier in the programme, “We are in a very serious recruitment crisis at the moment.”
Image : The Legal Service for Wales at Llandaff Cathedral. 13 October 2013, by FruitMonkey (Wikimedia Commons).