BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Friday, 6 April, 2001, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Judging the judges
Prospective judges face a new vetting course to establish their suitability. Over the years many headlines have poked fun at those with the wigs and gavels.

There once was a time when those on the court benches could make pronouncements from on high without fear of criticism.

Today, however, judges themselves run the risk of being ruled out of touch, or insensitive to women and ethnic minorities.

Arsenal keeper David Seaman
"Sorry, and your name is...?"
Yet just because a judge is unfamiliar with pop music - such as the magistrate who famously asked "Who are the Beatles?" - or unsure as to which sport Arsenal excel at, does that mean they are not up to the job?

A judge sitting at Highbury near Arsenal's home ground, had to dismiss the case against an alleged ticket tout because he did not know that Arsenal were an FA Premiership football club.

Opera or soccer?

Similarly, in 1990, on hearing the name "Gazza", Sir Jeremiah Harman asked, "Is it an opera?"

Now who might these colourful critters be?
And in 1999, Judge Francis Aglionby stopped a Teletubby theft case and asked, "What is that?"

A year earlier, Mr Justice Popplewell interrupted proceedings in a High Court libel trial to ask ''What is Linford Christie's lunchbox?''

It fell to the athlete himself - who had used the term in an attack on media speculation that he was a drugs cheat - to explain that, "They are making a reference to my genitals, your honour.''

Attitudes of bygone era

Profiling the judges
Seven in 10 went to public school
Two in three attended Oxbridge
93% are men
Institute of Employment Rights figures
As recently as 1997, a judge in Newcastle was reprimanded by the Lord Chancellor for saying in court that he knew loads of people with duodenal ulcers who "worked like niggers".

And a Midlands judge once told a man charged with holding up a solicitor's office that, "If a woman upsets you, it's part of their function in life - the fun they have."

When later asked by a reporter to elaborate, he exclaimed, "What lesbian group are you from?"

After Mr Justice Arthur Myerson commended a rapist "for concern and consideration for wearing a condom", a poll by the Solicitor's Journal found that the public regarded judges as "out of touch" and "too old".

Down with the kids

Yet His Honour Peter Mason, who in 1971 became the first judge to tell jurors to "keep your cool", now tries to keep his colleagues up with the play.

Eastender Steve on trial
"It woz a fit-up, mi'lud"
Fascinated by "the flashy cadences of the dock and witness box", he provides translations for street slang such as "prat" and "bevvie" in Magistrate magazine.

"It's light-hearted," he says, "to give them something to think about once every other year over their punch."

It's a lesson His Honour John Percival Harris may have done well to heed. When his query, "What does humping mean?" provoked a fit of giggles, he ordered a young woman out of court for contempt.

In keeping with courtroom protocol, however, perhaps the last word should come from the bench.

The late Michael Argyle, when asked if judges were out of touch, stoutly defended his peers.

"A lot of judges play golf. And if you play golf you couldn't possibly be out of touch."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

14 Mar 01 | Scotland
Judges' posts to be advertised
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories