JUDGE NOT THAT YE BE NOT JUDGED

One thing can be said for sure about Cherie Booth-Blair’s memoirs – they haven’t lacked publicity! Like countless others, I’ve skim read the serialised snippets and the sound bites emanating from the press, together with dozens of unflattering reviews. I did much the same for John Prescott until he disclosed he was suffering from bulimia, at which I collapsed with laughter and read no more. As far as I was concerned, the adipose scribe from yesteryear lost all credibility. Still, as Oscar Wilde once famously quipped: “There’s only one thing worse than bad publicity, and that’s no publicity!”

Was it ever thus for the aspiring author! That said, as an aspiring author myself of Toby Potts in the Temple of Gloom, now available from Amazon worldwide, I envy BB her media exposure, and there are lessons to be learned. But I’m not plugging her book or mine. Instead, I address the question raised by at least two judges, namely BB’s fitness for high office, and in particular, her ambition to become a judge.

The argument against such an elevation follows a well trodden path. It’s not just BB’s tacky disclosures of shenanigans in the corridors of power, drunken lords a-leaping and high jinks on the top deck of the Number 274 bus, it’s more to do with her lack of judgment when it came to shady property deals and her choice of friends.

Let me make it clear that I have never knowingly met BB in either of her public persona, a disappointment felt keenly by her no doubt. But here lies her dilemma! Over the past ten years, she’s tried to run with the hare and the hounds, with varying degrees of success and failure. One minute she’s the wife of the Prime Minister, rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, and the next minute she’s Cherie Booth QC, advocate extraordinaire and aspiring judge. When she rises to her feet in court, I wonder how many judges and fellow advocates and clients say: “There’s Ms. Booth QC, the eminent barrister”, as opposed to those who say: “There’s Cherie Blair, the wife of the Prime Minister.”

In these days of equal opportunity, it may sound curmudgeonly to criticise her decision to continue in practice as a barrister once her husband had been appointed Prime Minister, but BB must have known that her decision carried with it a number of risks, and besides, her husband was not exactly the shrinking violet. She was under the media spotlight from the word GO, and anything and everything she said and did would be under intense scrutiny. In my opinion, if she took advice, she was ill advised to carry on, and must now live with the consequences.

As to BB’s fitness to sit permanently in the seat of judgment, I feel the jury are still out, and for good reason. Some minion from the Ministry of Justice will get around to it in the fullness of time, there’ll be the usual unctuous wringing of hands, forms to be completed and check boxes ticked, and then the interview. I went through all that many years ago, and sad to relate, I was turned down as being intemperate. What!! Me!! I thought that was an essential prerequisite, but apparently not. But enough of me, back to BB. The profession does itself no service by criticising from within, knowing such criticism would attract maximum publicity. It demeans her critics more than it demeans her. I was always taught never to publicly criticise my colleagues at the Bar or on the Bench, though there were times when I was sorely tempted. It’s something to do with glass houses.

MAY IT PLEASE YOUR LORDSHIPS

Wigs and gowns, those hardy perennials of the legal profession, are back in the news, with Lord Worth of Matravers, doesn’t that just trip off the tongue, modelling the latest creation from some fashion icon with only a passing acquaintance of the law, rather like some judges I know. The Good Lord’s outfit is likened to that of Darth Vadar, black from head to toe, with distinctive tabs clinging seductively to the neck, the colour of which determines the seniority and provenance of the wearer.

Inevitably, the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ camps seem to be equally divided, so let’s look at where we are now, before considering where we go from here.

In the Magistrates Courts, otherwise known as courts of inferior jurisdiction, and which include Family Proceedings Courts, robes are conspicuous by their absence, both by advocates and justices alike. The same applies in the County Court hearing Family matters, and it is increasingly becoming the norm not to robe in civil matters for committal proceedings.

That leaves grown up County Courts, Crown Courts and the courts of superior jurisdiction such as the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords, soon to be replaced by the Supreme Court. In these courts, barristers still wear wig and gown, wing collar and bands, and the same applies to solicitor advocates, minus wig, to mark them down as interlopers and incompetents. Judges ‘robe up’ in various combinations of colours, and also wear the short bottomed wig. The full bottomed wig is reserved for ceremonial occasions and “theatre of the absurd” pictures in the press and media, to reassure Joe Public of the full majesty of the law, and God help those who transgress it.

The group of advocates clinging most tenaciously to the wig seem to be those practising the criminal law. The reasoning behind their tenacity is the belief that wig and gown give them a measure of anonymity, so that when they leave court, clutching their crust for the day, they are less likely to be accosted by a disgruntled defendant uttering that familiar refrain: “Who the f**k are you calling a f**king liar?” For my part, I am not persuaded, so I am firmly in the ‘no wig, no gown’ lobby.

But whatever the preferences of the profession, I feel that the proposed changes for the judiciary are not the answer. It’s simply tinkering at the margins, and change for change’s sake. I venture the opinion that most of the judiciary prefer to robe, and remain the way they are, and I agree. They need something to set them apart from we lesser mortals, and to give them gravitas. After all, they carry a grave and weighty responsibility, especially in the criminal courts when passing lengthy sentences of imprisonment, or even community penalties. Those on the receiving end need to have impressed on them the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion, and if the perception is that condign punishment is being meted out by Darth Vadar or Coco the Clown, the law is devalued and the poorer for it.

COMMUNITY RELATIONS GONE MAD

I am so depressed it’s almost impossible to put it into words! I am not referring to the credit crunch, falling house prices, the 10p tax band or manipulating and mendacious politicians trying to make me believe that a square is in fact a circle.

All this is depressing enough, but the last straw for me was the report that the West Midlands Police, yes that lot again, aided and abetted by the CPS, are making a formal apology in the High Court, even as I write, and paying substantial libel damages, to the producers of Undercover Mosque: a Dispatches investigation showing Islamic ‘preachers’ in this country calling for Jihad, together with the murder of non-believers and homosexuals, to name but a few.

And after the screening of the programme in January, what did these morons in the West Midlands police do about it? Instead of prosecuting these poisonous preachers, they began an investigation into the producers of the programme with the active connivance of the CPS, claiming that they, the producers, were guilty of selective editing and distortion, as well as undermining community relations! It simply beggars belief!

To make matters worse, these morons referred the programme to Ofcom, the media watchdog, which rejected the complaint out of hand, and described the programme as “accurately representing the material it had gathered and dealing with the subject matter responsibly and in context.”

When, oh when, oh when, will these morons wake up to what is going on around us and do what they are paid to do, namely to investigate, charge and prosecute these perpetrators of hate and violence?

To rub salt into the wound, and with the CPS declining to comment, nothing new there, these substantial damages are being paid by us, the taxpayers, and as night follows day, the denizens of the West Midlands will be surcharged for this shortfall in police funding when they get their next council tax demands.

But the final straw, for me at least, is the near certainty that these morons will do nothing to investigate, charge and prosecute these perpetrators of hate and violence in our midst, for fear of undermining community relations. Now where did I put my passport?

LICENCE TO KILL

It was with considerable disquiet that I read of the death of the young barrister at the hands of police marksmen. Several months from now we will get a report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, so I don’t wish to jump to conclusions or to prejudice the outcome of their investigations.

Reliable information is thin on the ground. From what we have been told, the deceased must have been suffering from a severe mental problem, the cause of which is unknown. Naturally, there is speculation about the pressure of work, an unstable relationship, and something that triggered a sudden explosion of anger.

But my disquiet arises from the way in which he died, at the hands of police marksmen who shot him five times, and I wonder why. The deceased was armed with a shotgun, which those of us who shoot game will know has a lethal range of no more than fifty metres. So whilst blasting off from the window of his apartment in Chelsea was obviously disturbing to tame and wild life respectively, once the area had been cleared, the threat to life and limb could have been contained.

Mercifully, incidents of legalised killing by the police are few and far between. We all have our own memories. There was the man, clearly deranged and possibly drunk, shot dead by police whilst brandishing a table leg, and besides, he wasn’t an up and coming barrister earning £500,000 a year! I’ll believe that when I see it! More recently there was the killing of Carlos de Menendes, but exceptional circumstances applied, and besides, he was a Johnny Foreigner who shouldn’t have been in this country in the first place.

 

I have read the guidelines issued to the police about “shoot to kill” policy, and it remains to be seen if they were followed. At first glance, they weren’t. But what perplexes me, and this tragic death highlights it, is what steps could and should have been taken to retrieve a volatile situation short of shooting to kill. Where are the trained mediators, indeed, are there any, to soothe the savage breast? The facts could have been ascertained quite quickly, especially with his partner in the wings, a disturbed young man with a shotgun, not a terrorist, who needed help, a quiet soothing voice and a shoulder to cry on. Even if it takes hours to talk a disturbed young man out of his moment of madness, surely it’s worth the effort.

Even if mediation wasn’t going to work, surely there are ways of ending such a confrontation without the use of weapons of last resort. What about smoke grenades for starters? If we believe in the sanctity of life sufficient to allow a known and self admitted terrorist to defeat a deportation order as a denial of his human rights, then what is the justification for ending the life of this otherwise perfectly decent young man so violently?

I have an uneasy feeling that more, much more, could have been done before the shoot out at the OK Corral, and once the police started shooting, the outcome was inevitable. This shouldn’t be James Bond territory. Let’s hope lessons are learned, and wiser counsels prevail in the future. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS

I applaud the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B illegal drug. It should never have been declassified in the first place. In so doing, they are ignoring the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recommends that it remains Class C. I applaud this decision in my professional capacity, and also personally, as the father of four children, fearful as I am that this declassification might send out the wrong message. The fact that the Prime Minister responsible for this declassification in 2004 had smoked cannabis in his youth, but of course never inhaled, is hardly reassuring.

I listened to two of the proponents of the status quo, one speaking as a so called expert, and the other a man of God whose contribution made absolutely no sense whatsoever, so I am none the wiser. I am not remotely interested in the constituent parts of cannabis, strong, medium or mild, it completely misses the point, and I remain unimpressed by the claims from cannabis users that the drug has medicinal qualities to cure everything from ingrowing toenails to senile dementia and, for all I know, the eradication of third world poverty.

From a professional point of view, I start with a bald statement. Those addicted to hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine began their slippery slide into oblivion by experimenting with cannabis, so it is absurd to isolate the use of cannabis and treat it as irrelevant to the wider picture. Cannabis is the catalyst, not an end in itself. Any serious drug dealer will tell you, as they tell me, that cannabis is the “loss leader” in the successful pushing of street corner drugs. They all but give it away, buy one and get one free as Tesco would say, and once the cannabis user becomes an habitual user, they move on to ply their trade in hard drugs, where the real profits are to be made.

This debate is all about sending out the wrong signals. If there were no correlation between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs, then all this hand wringing by the Advisory Council might have some purpose. Treated in isolation, they might have a valid point. But they lose sight of the wood for the trees. Illicit drugs are illicit regardless of their classification. In the vast majority of cases, those using them are sad, sick, individuals who need help in making something of their sad, sick, lives, but drugs are not the answer. They are a quick fix, a palliative, and not a cure.

This debate is not how the courts should deal with drug users or dealers, that is their domain, they have adequate sentencing powers, and should use them. This debate is all about persuading potential users not to use in the first place, and that is the message that should be trumpeted from the rooftops, time and time again.

I hope the government stand by their convictions and reclassify cannabis, and if they do so, wasted lives may yet be saved.