In the Media

How well behaved are Britain?s judges?

PUBLISHED August 8, 2007

If people thought a judge rude or ill-behaved, they used to have to write to the Lord Chancellor?s Department. Their complaint would disappear into the anonymity of the quaintly called ?judicial correspondence unit?. There was no formal public complaints procedure; most people probably did not know that the unit existed.

But since last year, a new body has been charged with monitoring the judges ? a kind of ?Ofjudge?, called the Office for Judicial Complaints. In its first year it received more than 1,600 complaints against judges, magistrates or other judicial officeholders and it has just published what steps it took.

Dale Simon, 42, a former Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) district prosecutor, who heads the office with a staff of 21, says that 1,674 complaints in its first year is 8 per cent up on the number sent to the old judicial correspondence unit, although direct comparisons are impossible as ?complaints are not defined in the same way?.

But set against the millions of cases being tried by the 43,000 judges, magistrates and others each year the figure is tiny, she says. In addition, half the complaints are rejected because they relate to a judicial decision ? which is outside the remit of the office and could be challenged only through an appeal. ?The percentage of complaints is a minute fraction of all the cases that are going in the courts every day. From these figures we can be confident that we have a pretty well-behaved judiciary that we can have confidence in.

?The purist would say one complaint is one too many but realistically, when you are dealing with people, there is room for the occasional deviation from the very high standards we expect from our judiciary.?

The other 817 complaints span a range of alleged unjudicial behaviour including motoring-related offences (49); general rudeness (99); inappropriate comments (66); misuse of judicial status (38); and professional misconduct (51).

How it works is that complaints are looked into by the office and then referred to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, who jointly decide if action is needed. In all, disciplinary action was taken in just 32 cases but that included 16 where the judicial office holder was removed from post. Of those, 15 were magistrates and one a tribunal chairman.

So of complaints resulting in disciplinary action, 28 involved magistrates, which was 0.09 per cent of all received; two tribunal members, or 0.03 per cent of the total; and two were mainstream judges, or 0.05 per cent of the total made. Some 38 complaints were also made about coroners but none led to disciplinary action. Three formal warnings were also issued and 13 reprimands, including two considered by the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice ?at the most serious end? of that scale.

But what were the misdemeanours? None is identified as the anonymity of the judge or magistrate is preserved under the Constitutional Reform Act, nor are anonymised case histories provided. Simon, a qualified barrister (called both to the English Bar and that of Antigua and Barbados) who worked in criminal defence and childcare law, then with the CPS where she handled complaints against the police, says it would be for Parliament to decide if, say, those removed were to be identified.

Two current complaints with her office have, however, been very publicly aired: the referral by the Lord Chief Justice of Mr Justice Peter Smith, the judge who refused to step down from a case in which he had been acrimoniously linked with a law firm involved; and two immigration judges embroiled in the ?chilli hot stuff? blackmail case. On the first, a nominated Court of Appeal judge (one of three) will look at the case and advise if disciplinary action should be taken or whether a further judicial investigation is needed.

The investigation into the other judges is now proceeding after the ending of the criminal proceedings.

For the anonymous rest, the figures, Simon would argue, speak for themselves. The public can have confidence ?that very few do deviate from those very high standards and that those who do are subject to a robust process that can lead to their removal?.