What really goes on in a judge's chambers? The Observer, granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to one court, learns of the frustrations that beset a judge who has been publicly criticised as too lenient

When he sweeps into court, resplendent in violet robe, red sash and wig, Judge Michael Findlay Baker QC cuts an august and intimidating figure.  Back in his small, simple chambers, however, a less formidable character emerges. Shunning the Dickensian tradition of stashing gin under his desk, the 63-year-old resident judge at St Albans Crown Court maintains a well-stocked supply of lime cordial, while instead of lining his walls with accolades, he collects photographs of mountain peaks he has climbed.

The modesty of his chambers is unexpected given Baker's responsibility for ensuring the just and efficient dispatch of the law across Hertfordshire. It was his decision, for example, to sentence the two babysitters, Alan Webster and Tanya French, who raped a 12-week-old child, to minimum terms of six years and five years that outraged the public over its perceived leniency. The horror was such that Lord Goldsmith, QC, the Attorney-General, appeared before a rarely used panel of Court of Appeal judges to ask them to increase the sentences. It had, he said, damaged public confidence in the criminal justice system. Last week, the court marginally increased the minimum term for one of the rapists to eight years.

The self-effacing plainness of Baker's chambers was only one of the surprises uncovered by The Observer in two weeks of unprecedented access to Britain's legal system, during which we sat next to Baker on the judge's bench, saw the private questions handed to him by the jurors and were party to his deliberations.

We discovered more humanity than formality in the courts' processes and were privy to a great deal of robust criticism from Baker of the law, the government and the entire criminal justice system.

His most controversial comments came at the end of the two-week trial of Christopher Williams, a paedophile responsible for one of the most infamous child kidnappings in Britain when, in 1990, he held a four-year-old boy in captivity for 56 days.

Williams, who was jailed a second time in 1998 after assaulting a boy of eight, was sent back to prison for a third time by Baker 10 days ago for a decade after a jury found him guilty of stalking young boys. But only days before he sentenced Williams, telling him his 'bitter, angry, devious, manipulative and dishonest' behaviour proved there was no 'apparent prospect of his entrenched and compulsive behaviour being changed in the foreseeable future', the government announced a programme of early release of prisoners to ease desperate jail overcrowding.

While not commenting specifically on Williams's case, Baker observed: 'It does become very difficult to pass sentences that you know are not going to be implemented. Early releases don't give the public or the judges much confidence in the system. We, as judges, have to implement the law, but the government is speaking with two voices: saying there are too many people in prisons, but then tying our hands by creating mandatory minimum sentences, increasing maximum terms for other sentences and requiring us to pass more draconian sentences for dangerous offenders.

'It is very difficult to reconcile the messages that come out of Home Office,' he said. 'It's not just the government; it's the whole political world to a large extent. They say they're just reflecting public opinion, but someone, at some point, has to stand up and try to solve this problem.'

Baker, who became a circuit judge in 1990, came to the law along the most illustrious of routes. His Inns of Court also produced Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord; Lord Goldsmith; the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine; and the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer.

His views, expressed with candour, offer an analysis of a world behind the closed doors of the courtroom that the public rarely has an opportunity to see. Baker's opinions of prisons, for example, should give prison supporters pause for thought. 'Prison makes many criminals, particularly youngsters, worse in one sense and is highly undesirable,' he admitted at the end of a long day.

'It mostly only works in the sense that, when someone is incarcerated, they are not committing offences. Prison is not designed to promote rehabilitation, particularly for sex offenders. That knowledge does make me feel uncomfortable about sending some people to prison, but sometimes I have no alternative; I simply don't have the independence not to pass a sentence on someone whose character and personality may be such that prison will only make him worse.'

Baker chafed against the growing lack of independence for judges to fit the sentence to the individual on a case-by-case basis and is concerned by the recent hardening of sentencing guidelines. 'Sentences have become harsher,' he said. 'More people are being given community orders instead of fines, and more people are being given prison sentences instead of community orders. One consciously tries to bring them down, but to do so while acting consistently with other judges and with the sentencing guidelines council's advice is not an easy thing to do.'

One particular disparity in the law disturbed him. 'My obligation is to apply the law and apply it justly, but sometimes it is quite difficult to do that. The biggest worry for me is the huge divergence between the sentence for murder and the sentence for manslaughter. The difference between intending to cause serious injury and not may be a very narrow one in terms of making a decision, but a massive one in terms of the sentence received.

'I find it very worrying, for example, that, in cases of domestic homicide, you may get three years in jail if you succeed in your defence of provocation, but if you do not, you may get a minimum of 15 years. Overall, the tariff for murder is higher than I would like it to be,' he said.

As Resident Judge, Baker is also responsible for overseeing the minutiae of his court and he did this with an almost paternal concern.

When, for example, a case had to be held up for an hour because a juror has missed her bus, he was both exasperated by the delay and full of empathy. 'Can you imagine what that juror must be feeling?' he asked. 'She must be mortified, poor thing.' When forced to adjourn a case because a juror felt ill, he went to see him during lunchtime. 'I wanted to hear from the horse's mouth, if you like, that he was feeling better,' he said.

On another day, Baker attempted to pour oil on troubled waters after a prosecutor lost her temper with a defence barrister in court. 'These things can get terribly heated,' he said during a break after the flare-up. 'I know what I'll do; when we are all sat down and ready to begin again, I'll beam at her.'

Baker was not above recognising his own vulnerabilities. 'I can get confused in court sometimes when the evidence is particularly complex or detailed,' he said. 'If you get mixed up, you have to stop the proceedings to get it sorted out, but at the same time you don't want to make yourself look like a complete prat by keeping on doing so.'

However, Baker disagreed with the claim that some judges do not live in the real world, made most publicly in 2003 by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. 'People have an image of judges being distant, lofty figures,' he said. 'Of course, I'm not in touch with everything that goes on in the world, and in some respects some judges do lead different lives. I don't go to Sainsbury's on a Saturday morning and I was never able to tell which of the Spice Girls was which. But would you know what I was talking about if I asked for "an 'Enry" and said, "It's for Percy?"' he asked. 'It means I want an eighth of an ounce of cannabis for personal use. That is part of the world we judges live in and a part with which we are most definitely in touch.

He ruefully agreed, however, that stories of judges nodding off during cross-questioning are not unfounded. 'It would be foolish to pretend we don't ever feel sleepy. Some judges even take smelling salts into court with them,' he said. 'It sounds nonsensical, but cases involving incidents of violence are the worst because there are often a large number of witnesses, each giving pretty much exactly the same evidence. It can be very, very soporific.' He added: 'I do accept, however, that it is catastrophic for appearances if the judge falls asleep and appearances are very important.'

The appearance of the judge - and of the court itself - is, Baker insisted, key to the smooth running of justice. While he takes pains to remember how intimidating a court can be for visitors, he is adamant that a bit of formality is no bad thing. 'When you have got a serious case and the jury is returning its verdict with the victims and their relations, and the defendant and their relations all in court together, it really is quite important that everyone should be a bit impressed by the formality of the occasion, because the temptation to shout and misbehave, which can be very contagious, is considerable.'

But the biggest battle of all, the one that Baker has to fight, day in and day out, is against the endless delays and adjournments for which English courts are infamous.

'Most of these delays are inexcusable,' he said. 'They are caused by inefficiencies, financial pressures and sheer disorganisation. I very roughly estimate that it costs the court at least ?20 for every minute's delay, but the real price is paid by witnesses and defendants, whose lives are often in limbo until a case is concluded.'

The delays are partly caused by funding issues - courts across the country have been subjected to swingeing cuts in recent years - combined with an increase in cases. Last year, the workload at St Albans was at an all-time high and a third of cases had to be sent to courts in neighbouring counties. There are two ways, Baker said, of dealing with the pressure: 'You either try to push work through and recognise you can fall into error by trying to go too fast, or you can take as long as you need on each case without hurrying.'

The problem with the second option is that a backlog of cases will quickly build up, with the inevitable result that solicitors will advise clients to plead 'not guilty' on the basis that their case might be kicked forever into the legal long grass. 'That, in turn, creates more cases going to court, which creates more of a backlog,' Baker sighed. 'It's a vicious circle.'

It is not just the workload that creates delays. A single morning spent in court is enough to see how frequently defendants are not delivered on time - or at all - from their prison, how vital papers go astray, video links fail, and how the Police National Computer, which records details of defendants' criminal records, prevents judges deciding sentences.

On The Observer's first day with Judge Baker, for example, there were three short cases requiring interim rulings before the main case of Christopher Williams began. The prosecution barrister in the first case failed to deliver the case file to Baker's chambers, and he had to waste time reading the papers in court.

The defence barrister, however, was even more shamefaced when forced to admit that she had not obtained a vital witness statement; a failure which prevented the case progressing at all. In the second case, the defence barrister had not had time to meet his witness, who was delivered late from prison. Baker refused to grant permission for more time than it took the two to have a quick, whispered conversation at the back of the room. 'This case has been one of endless adjournments going back to February,' he remonstrated. 'It's just bumping along the bottom, not going anywhere. This isn't good enough.' But the chaos of the third case was even more substantial. The defending barrister had not spoken to the solicitors or to the client, papers had gone astray and a previous order by Baker for a witness statement had been ignored. In despair, Baker told them they had one last chance to get organised before being charged with contempt of court.

Nothing frustrates Baker more than inefficiencies in the transport of defendants from prison to court. Prisoners from each county are taken to a central collection point every morning, divided into groups and dropped off, one by one, at different courts. The system, however, is so inefficient that prisoners are frequently late for their own trials and often don't turn up at all. At St Albans, prisons fail to send the correct prisoner to the right court at least twice a month.

Baker told the story of a recent case involving the trial of five people, all remanded in different prisons. In the first half of the five-week trial there was delay in delivery of one prisoner or another on every day. On two days, the proceedings did not start until after lunch. 'One prosecution witness had to wait two days before starting to give evidence and when she began she was unable to complete it because it had got so late. So she was told to return next day,' he said. 'That night she attempted to commit suicide. I can't say the attempt was definitely caused by the court's delays, but the tension in a case like that is considerable and to add to it can absolutely torment people.'

For all his attempts to force through improvements, Baker feels that courts all too easily succumb to 'disorder fatigue'. 'To say it's inevitable sounds rather complacent, but, however hard we work, there will always probably be inefficiencies, because we're not dealing with a system remotely the same as any other business, where everyone is working together to the same end,' he said.

As the week wound down, the judges at St Albans met for lunch and to exchange gossip. The day after the Beckhams' World Cup party, for example, there was talk of little else. 'My wife and daughter had to tell me who everyone was,' said Baker. 'But I thought the couple themselves were quite impressive. He's a delightful, unassuming man with one great skill and her organisational skills are exceptional.' The other judges reminisce about their days as young barristers. 'I danced around my chamber when I won my first case,' mused one. Another took longer to experience such success: 'I was working in a court where anyone prosecuted over stolen goods was guaranteed to walk free. No local jury could come to grips with the idea that it was wrong to buy a video player for ?20 from an unnamed person in the pub.'

Baker cancelled his holiday to see the Williams case through but even with it behind him he felt no sense of relief. 'The emotions I feel are not as simple as that,' he reflected, as he walked round his chamber, still wearing his judicial regalia.

'I feel sorry for the man because I think he is more unable to control himself than unwilling to do so; many of the more serious offenders have very little control over their behaviour,' he said. 'I don't go as far as to say anyone is predestined to commit crimes, but the behaviour of some people, by time they get to us, is trapped in a spiral of offending.'

It is a bleak evaluation of Britain's criminal justice system and its failure to rehabilitate serious offenders whose crimes blight the lives of their victims.

But Baker was not entirely cast down. Gazing at the photographs of mountain peaks on his chamber walls, he absently rubbed at an ink-stain on the sleeve of his robe and considered the men who had appeared before him.

'Is there any hope for offenders such as these? I would like to think so,' he said. 'But then, I deal in misery and vice. I have to be an optimist at heart.'

On the bench
  • The English and Welsh judicial system is made up of different courts, each dealing with specific types of case and presided over by a certain type of judge.
  • Each rank of judge has its own title, areas of legal expertise, pay and dress.
  • There are 108 High Court judges, but their red robes are usually worn only by judges dealing with criminal cases.
  • There are 11 female High Court judges and one from an ethnic minority; also a woman. High Court judges earn ?162,000.
  • The 626 Circuit judges sit in civil, criminal and family cases. They can jail for criminal offences; in civil and family cases they award compensation or make orders.
  • There are 72 female Circuit judges and seven from ethnic minorities. They earn between ?96,5000 and ?194,000 and
  • The 431 District judges hear cases while sitting alone in county court chambers. They rule on civil and family disputes, bankruptcy and emergency injunctions involving domestic violence.
  • There are 100 female District judges and 13 from ethnic minorities. District judges earn ?96,500 to ?129,900 and wear ordinary suits.
  • The 1,380 recorders are part-time judges in the crown and county courts and wear a black coat with bands. Their jurisdiction is like that of a circuit judge.
  • There are 194 female recorders and 56 from ethnic minorities.
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