Bad and Very Bad judges

15 May 2014 by

9780854901418A recent, short (71 pages), and interesting book on the phenomenon of the bad judge, by Graeme Williams Q.C: details here.   You may not be surprised to read that, libel laws being what they are, all the subjects of Williams’ book are in their graves. But, as the author points out, the lessons derived from their badnesses live on.

A number of themes emerge.

The first is that bad judges are often clever judges, but people temperamentally ill-suited to listening patiently to other people – which is unsurprisingly a large part of their job.

The second is that some of the most disastrous appointments are truly political ones. Mercifully we now have a sophisticated system of judicial appointments which is currently divorced from the rough and tumble of politics – though with the politicisation of the office of the Lord Chancellor, and the shrilling-up of the press debate about “unelected judges etc etc” we need to keep a beady eye on that. We also have judicial training and all judges will have sat as part timers before they get appointed, so the worst instances of unsuitability get weeded out before they get the full-time job.

Now to instances of being  a Bad Judge which Williams tells us about. One splendid example is Judge Bruce Campbell, who in the 1970s pleaded guilty to attempting illicitly to import a substantial quantity of whisky (125 litres) and cigarettes (9,000) secreted in his yacht – a sort of unlawful judicial booze cruise. He tried to resign, but Lord Hailsham was having none of that, and peremptorily dismissed him – thus losing him his pension.

A rather more typical example of a judge with Bad Judgment, is the 19th-century Lord Chancellor, Lord Westbury. Very clever and precocious (Oxford at 14), got into Parliament, became Attorney-General, and then in 1861, became LC. Cleverness and naivety was his downfall. He fell out with leading churchmen over some abstruse religious dispute, and described a judgement of his religious opponents, as a

well-lubricated set of words, so oily and saponaceous that no-one could grasp it. Like an eel, it slips through your fingers.

Splendid abuse, but not really for the LC to say, in Parliament – saponaceous, as you all will know, means “soapy”. Also a splendid way to lose friends.

His fall was because of his inadequate response to certain abuses amongst various officeholders in his department, which was weak, involved accepting their resignations (and thus they kept their pensions), and then appointing one son to one post and the debtor of another son to another post. Summed up beautifully by one contemporary as a response of “fatuous simplicity”.

But the resonant cases are the political appointments. Start with Darling J, whose main claim to fame up to that point had been to win an unpromising by-election in 1888 for the Conservatives. He got severely up the nose of  a Birmingham newspaper who called him

the impudent little man in horsehair, a microcosm of conceit and empty-headedness

– for which the journalist was done for contempt of court. He retired from the High Court Bench in 1923, and 2 months thereafter was given a peerage, and started sitting in the Lords in its judicial capacity. Of course – if you have strong political support.

Or Lord Chief Justice Hewart, appointed in 1922 straight from the political office of Attorney-General to be LCJ, without any judicial experience at all. Skill-sets nicely summarised by a contemporary:

He lacked only the one quality which should distinguish a judge: that of being judicial. He remained the perpetual advocate.

His grumpy face adorns the front cover of the book.

Let me not spoil all Williams’ stories. But I cannot resist Judge Ramshay’s career, appointed in 1850 by the Earl of Carlisle as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, seemingly because Ramshay’s father and grandfather had been the Earl’s land agents. Ramshay got into trouble quickly, and was suspended for offensive language in Court. The Lord Chancellor lifted his suspension, and Williams described Ramshay’s instant response to being allowed to sit as a judge again:

He celebrated this outcome by ordering some 150 cases to be listed for hearing at 9 a.m. five days later, but did not himself attend Court until nearly 1pm. (Not the way to gain the approval of the local lawyers, or their clients).

Well quite. A welter of litigation then followed to get rid of him; he challenged the Earl’s decision to do so, unsuccessfully, and challenged the appointment of his replacement in court. All to no avail – and, as Williams puts it:

At which point Ramshay disappears from history, leaving a striking record of Judicial Badness behind him.

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