DAMNED IF YOU DO…..

Two judges are very much in the news. The first is the aptly named Judge Block, the infamous judge now long gone whose only claim to fame was sentencing Mick Jagger in 1967 to 3 months’ imprisonment for possession of 4 amphetamine tablets. That sentence of imprisonment lasted less than 24 hours before Jagger was released from Brixton Prison pending an appeal.

The second more illustrious judge is the splendidly named and recently retired Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a former Court of Appeal judge, who has accepted the poisoned chalice, possibly to his everlasting regret, and has agreed to chair the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.

Whatever else, he brings to the task over 20 years of judicial experience, and with the obvious exception of some hooligan elements of the Labour Party and self-interested lobby groups, the appointment has been generally welcomed.

That said, the press muckrakers point to a case in 2014 when he upheld the decision of Westminster Council to rehouse a single homeless mother  50 miles away in Milton Keynes.  His decision was overturned by the Supreme Court.  The report of the appeal does not relate if it was the distance that was deemed unfair, or the relocation to Milton Keynes, the land of the concrete cows.  But when questioned by some newshound about this decision, Sir Martin made an obvious yet incisive comment applicable to all judges, high or low:

“The case is one of many that I have decided over my time as a judge,” Sir Martin said. “I have been a judge for over 20 years and, particularly in the Court of Appeal, one deals with an enormous range of work, much of which involves local government or central government. One simply reaches the conclusion that you think is right, applying the law as you see it, and that is the work of a judge. You can’t pretend to get every case right, at least in the eyes of the Supreme Court.” And perish the thought, even the Supreme Court gets it wrong from time to time.

No jurisdiction this side of the pearly gates can guarantee that judges are going to get it right all the time, indeed, it’s absurd to even think so. When I first started  out at the Bar in 1974, instances of judges getting it wrong were legion.  Less so today, where judicial appointments are rigorously vetted, to ensure if possible that the right candidates get the nod.

Those of you who know and love me will know that many years ago, I was considered unsuitable for judicial office because some minion thought I was intemperate.  Me!  Intemperate! Outrageous!

In his judgment to come on the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire, I doubt if Sir Martin will be all things to all people, and my advice to him is to drop the chair like a hot brick.  I suspect he is too much of a professional to do so, in which case he deserves our thanks, or at least the thanks of decent fair minded people,  but there will be elements who will seek to undermine him and to question his every decision.

Back to Judge Block.  He got it horribly wrong when he sentenced Mick Jagger, but getting it horribly wrong doesn’t, or shouldn’t, disqualify him from judicial office.  We hope he learned from his mistake, and moved on.

Judges have an unenviable task, underpaid and overworked, and a knighthood is poor recompense.  Time to show some gratitude, and time to support them in the difficult tasks ahead without constantly carping and belittling them.

Judges are the ultimate bastion of our democracy.

 

 

 

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THE MUPPET SHOW

I make no apologies for borrowing the title from a recent Times leader comparing the Chilcot inquiry to the Muppet Show, and the subtitle “At every turn, the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War has been lower than farce. To call the inquiry “a farce” would be to endow it with a gravitas it does not deserve.” Amen to that.

I am totally bemused by the predilection of a section of the Great British Public to wallow in these endless inquiries, as if somehow they are relevant and ground breaking, and more to the point, that something relevant will emerge. It happened with Diana, now it’s happening with Iraq. For the most part, they fill a void in the ongoing Media circus when ‘real’ news is at a premium.

But for the lawyers amongst you, the inquiry and its conclusions could indeed be ground breaking and I wonder if any thought has been put into the “farce” which might result.

Consider the possibilities. If the Iraq War was indeed illegal, all those who served in the armed forces during the invasion are liable to be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act 1991. This useless and misconceived piece of legislation makes it possible to prosecute UK residents who have committed illegal acts of war anywhere in the world, as witness the absurd and meaningless prosecution of Anton Sawoniuk, a UK resident who had allegedly shot dead a handful of Jews during the Second World War whilst serving with the German army of occupation. The date, as far as it could be agreed, was 1942, and the place was Belarus.

We also know that the defence of “just following orders” is not available, and hasn’t been since the Nuremburg trials in 1946, so we have the picture of thousands of British military personnel being prosecuted for war crimes and facing lengthy sentences of imprisonment. It beggars belief!

Then there is the question of collective responsibility. There is a convention that decisions taken in Cabinet abide by the principle of collective responsibility, and no matter how much those then members of government may now wriggle and squirm to distance themselves, a thoroughly unedifying spectacle, they are tarred with the same brush as Tony Blair, the Prime Minister at the time. So they too face collective prosecution. And what about the Members of Parliament who voted for the war? English law does not acknowledge ignorance as a defence, so they too are at risk of prosecution as they too voted for an illegal war. Those at risk come from both of the main parties, with only the Lib Dems whiter than white. So the two main parties may be prevented from putting forward candidates at the General Election who voted for the war, which gives the Lib Dems a clear run at elected office for the first time in nearly one hundred years. It’s too frightening even to contemplate.

Keir Stramer, the hitherto anonymous Director of Public Prosecutions, is going to be rushed off his feet, where before, his only contribution to the smooth running of the criminal justice system was to pontificate on assisted suicide. In that respect, if the latest farrago is to be believed, his attempts at clarity have fallen on deaf ears.

And finally, what about the victims of war, both during and after the conflict? By all accounts, thousands of Iraqis perished, or were maimed, in the course of an illegal war, so they too will be looking for compensation, and may have to be called as witnesses in the myriad of prosecutions which should flow if the war is deemed illegal. They will have to appear as witnesses in an English Court to give evidence, and the chances are that many of them will simply disappear into the ether, or claim political asylum, or both, which in turn will tie up the Immigration Service for years to come. And worse still, the compensation ‘pot’ will bankrupt this country at a time when borrowing is at an all time high. According to the remit of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, the body charged with distributing compensation to victims of crime, the compensation awarded to the relatives of those killed illegally will reach five and six figure sums.

I conclude with the closing remarks of The Times leader: “This inquiry is an expedient born of political weakness and intended to defuse a debilitating public controversy. It has not worked. It cannot work.” To quote Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show:

“I guess all’s well that ends well,” says Statler.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” says Waldorf, “so long as it ends.”