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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Are judges politically correct?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

As judges are given new guidance on terminology that avoids offending minorities and women, BBC News Online asks lawyers if those on the bench need it.

The Royal Courts of Justice
A home to many a judge's offensive gaffe over the years
Senior judges have long been stereotyped as upper class, public-school educated, white male twits, easily blundering into causing offence and mercilessly parodied in Private Eye's Mr Justice Cocklecarrot.

Not using the term "ethnics" to refer to people from ethnic minorities, or referring to adult women as "girls" might seem obvious to some, but lawyers welcomed the publication of the Equal Treatment Benchbook.

Leading commercial barrister Michael Brindle QC told BBC News Online a guide for suitable terminology was a good thing, but said most modern judges were very careful in what they said.

"There have been instances where judges say the wrong thing it causes embarrassment for the judges. They would rather people stick with the script.

There are less 'characters' on the bench generally [now] - you may put this down to political correctness
Michael Brindle QC
"It used to happen a lot more than it does now.

He said loose-lipped judges were now more commonly found abroad.

"I did a case in the Bahamas where an Australian judge kept using four-letter words all the time."

Political incorrectness seems largely to be confined to the old school of judges, now departed from the bench.

Among their number was Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, the trial judge who sent down the Kray twins.

The well-known judge was once reprimanded by the lord chancellor for calling the Sexual Offences Act 1967 a "buggers' charter".

Mr Brindle said there were fewer characters on the bench now. "You may put this down to political correctness," he said.

"It is very easy to make a silly remark and be lampooned in the press. Judges have learned to be more boring."

Alison Stanley, an immigration lawyer at Bindmans, said she had never encountered any offensive gaffes during her work.

The disabled
Visible minorities
Man and wife
Mental handicap
"It does slightly surprise that [the guidance] is necessary. On the other hand I think it is admirable that the [Judicial Studies] board has addressed the issue.

"If people feel a judge has been prejudiced against them because of the use of unsuitable language they feel they're not getting a fair hearing."

And she welcomed the handbook's advice on avoiding indiscriminate use of the word "asylum seeker".

"It is always coupled in the public's mind with 'bogus'. I would use it but only carefully in context.

"In my field - immigration - judges are extremely careful."

Recognition that judges must remember the disadvantages suffered by women was welcome, Ms Stanley said.

Criminal and human rights lawyer and legal columnist John Cooper said making sure judges were using the right terminology was about making the law "user-friendly".

"It is right people should be guided and assisted as to what makes the law more accessible to the general public," he said.

"Lawyers are often stereotyped as people who are out of touch with reality... [but] the present crop of judiciary are in step with the 21st century.

"They have taken on the criticisms of the past as to what the modern terms are."


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