This blog post has been triggered by my happening to have seen a couple of minor news items while idly browsing the Internet. The first reported that my old head of chambers –shall we call him M.B.?– from when I practised as a barrister in Exeter (2002-2007), has been elevated to the Bench as a Circuit Judge and is now styled His Honour M.B.
The other news item was that the old (dating from 1905) Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court and police station have been turned into “a luxury boutique hotel”. Sign of the times.
These reports have led me to muse on some of my own experiences with the judicial classes.
M.B. will probably make an effective judge. An erudite civil lawyer, I met him when I decided to stop being an employed lawyer (a situation I was in, intermittently, from 1996 through to 2002) and re-start Bar practice in England. I had been living and/or working overseas for much of those six or seven years, and in London, where at one time I was the leaseholder of property in Gray’s Inn; I lived at that time at Higher Denham, Buckinghamshire, from where I travelled in by rail from Denham Golf Club halt to Marylebone).
I was in Kazakhstan for a year (1996-97) and after that also lived in or made shorter visits to a number of other countries: Egypt (where I lived for a while in Aswan, on a remote Red Sea beach under canvas, in a flat in Alexandria and in the desert oasis of Siwa); Turkey (I drove UK-Turkey-UK in 2001, which was quite an adventure at times: France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, a 4-month trip); the USA (based in Charleston, South Carolina, but I also stayed for a while in Tampa, Florida); Qatar; Liechtenstein; the Channel Islands, the Eastern Caribbean (several islands); the Cayman Islands, Minorca, Czech Republic, Northern Cyprus etc.
I remember one member of my future chambers remarking at my interview that my CV read in parts like that of James Bond. I had to point out that any resemblance between me and James Bond was purely co-incidental and very implausible (and not only because I have never belonged to any secret service!). Still, I joined that set and in general found it OK, though at first it (and so I) had very little work. I had taken on the lease of one of the largest country houses in North Cornwall and liked the relaxed lifestyle of the Cornwall/Devon upstream Tamar River area.
As to M.B., not long after I joined the set, M.B. and I won a multi-day action in contract and trust together (though appearing for different people) at Plymouth County Court. After that, we did appear on opposite sides a couple of times during my 5 years in chambers, but he lost out despite being (arguably) a better advocate and (unarguably) a better lawyer than me.
I may as well add that, despite what some Jewish individuals claimed after I was disbarred in 2016 (about 8 years after I had left chambers and ceased Bar practice!), M.B. and the other fellow members of chambers (with one, possibly two exceptions: see below) did not want me to leave chambers, whether for political or any other reasons. Indeed, M.B. wanted me to stay on despite my having decided to resign.
In fact, I was commuting on a weekly or 2-weekly basis across the Channel to Finistere, where my wife and cats were living. This resulted in financial strain, in that I was only available for half the time, was paying out large amounts for ferries (return trip with car, luxury cabin too, about £300 return, every week or so…), hotels in the UK for 10-20 nights per month; also, putting the seal on it all, I was starting to have “discussions” with the Revenue (which only ended in 2012).
My only misgivings about M.B. as a judge would be that, firstly, he tends to stick with black-letter law; in my view, he is unwilling to bend the law to fit the justice of the case. Whether that is a strength or a weakness is a matter for debate. Secondly, when I decided to leave chambers, I quite liked the idea of remaining as a door tenant [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Door_tenant] and M.B. said that that would not be a problem and implied (indeed expressed, though in some other words) it would be nodded through, but that the correct form would be to resign tenancy first and then apply for door tenancy, though approval would “in my case” be automatic. However, when it came to it, a couple of new tenants (I believe) cut up rough because one was married to some kind of Indian and was very hostile to (what he assumed) were my political views; I think (guessing) that a recent ex-pupil (a humourless bespectacled woman with an invisible sign round her neck saying “Politically-Correct Virtue-Signalling Christian”) may also have blackballed me.
In the event, the door tenancy would have been a waste of time because the Revenue was on my back at a cross-Channel distance. Still, that made me think that M.B. was not necessarily reliable, a thought that had occurred previously once or twice.
Now to another judge of sorts. Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court, long before it was (quite recently) turned into a luxury boutique hotel, was for some years often presided over by one Jacqueline “Jackie” Comyns, a notoriously despotic “stipendiary magistrate” (the rank now renamed “District Judge Criminal”). Her reputation was fearsome. I only appeared once in front of this gargoyle: I was “briefed” at 11 am to appear at 12! That was in 1993. I read the brief on the way to court. The defendant had refused to get off a defective bus and had then assaulted the conductor and gone on to smash the side window of a police car. She was pleading guilty. At court, the case came on minutes after my arrival. The magistrate interrupted my mitigation to ask some petty question about the defendant. I did not know the answer, having not had time for a brief conference. Instead of simply asking the defendant for the information, this ghastly frustrated prize bitch, sitting on her seat of petty power, told me venomously that Counsel had to be properly prepared when appearing in her court, and told me to go ask the defendant! I did, the pitying or amused eyes of dozens of police, court staff, members of the public on me as I traversed the unusually large courtroom and extracted the information.
I was told that that magistrate was going to be elevated to the Circuit bench in Essex, but that turned out to be wrong, because I see from the Internet that she was still dispensing justice from Thames Mags (on the other side of the river) as recently as 2013, the year that she retired (aged 70).
The problem of “judge-itis” (the tendency to be a despot sitting on the pedestal of power) is worse, usually, the further down the pecking order you go. It is rarely found in the higher courts. At one time (1993-1995) I appeared on a frequent basis, at least once weekly, in the High Court. If I had a problem, it was never because the judge was reprising am-dram Nero or Caligula. In the County Courts, the problem is occasionally encountered. HH Judge Overend, the presiding civil judge for Devon and Cornwall until 2006, was often a horrible despot when seated, but in his case his bullying manner (and apparent tendency to make up his mind before you had finished —or even started– speaking) was mitigated by fairness and compassion for those suffering (so long as they were not Counsel!). The barristers of the South West used to describe bruising encounters with him as one having been “Overended”…I have to say that on the odd occasion when he saw me outside court, he did always nod affably and even briefly smiled at times.
The magistrates’ courts are often the zoos where the wildest judicial animals roam their constricted territories. I once saw a stipendiary magistrate in London refuse bail to a defendant who was in court on a stretcher and on a drip !
Other judges have the opposite tendency, a pretty fatal one for a judge, a difficulty in deciding anything, especially if it would involve penalizing (eg imprisoning) those who break court orders. Judges whose Bar practice was entirely in civil work tend to fall victim to this; at least, that was my experience.
I have to say that I only found a few judges who were completely impossible. One was not a judge proper, i.e. the lady who presided over Tower Bridge Mags; the other was one whose name escapes me now, but who sat at Uxbridge County Court 25 years ago. His connection with justice was, as far as I could see, purely formal. The many others, particularly on the High Court bench, might not always have seen eye to eye with me on the law or facts, but were almost always courteous in manner and impressive in their grasp.