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Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 14:29 UK

Do judges need a PR make-over?

The clothes add to the impression of being out of touch
With judges commonly viewed as out of touch, Phil Kemp asks whether they should reinvent themselves.

"Old and wrinkly... distinguished, upper-class gentleman in a wig... probably not very in touch with the rest of society."

These are the words a random sample of people in London used to describe judges, when the BBC Radio 4's Law in Action canvassed opinion. Is this something to worry about?

Some senior judges think so and there's talk about them paying public relations experts to improve their press.

Law in Action is on BBC Radio 4 at 1600 BST on Tuesday 8 July
Visit the Law in Action website to download or catch up using the iPlayer

There is no law forbidding judges from giving interviews or participating in public debate or events, but it is convention that they generally don't.

One man they might turn to for advice is David Rigg, managing director of Project Associates, a communications consultancy which specializes in the management of reputation.

"Clearly they are seen as an absolutely fundamental part of the way we run our lives in this country," he says. "They are clearly seen as independent and largely perceived as being strong and intelligent.

"However they're also seen as being out of touch, remote and sometimes elitist."

If the judiciary wants better headlines than "Sack Judges for Criminal Errors", they'll have to start by convincing journalists like Carole Malone from the News of the World, who wrote that one.

Being on Big Brother would seem to me to be an absolute disaster
PR consultant David Rigg

"People see them now as old men who belong to a 'pass the port' culture of a long time ago," she says. "They're seen to be out of touch and they don't know what's going on."

Carole Malone's now something of a celebrity journalist, thanks in part to an appearance on Big Brother. Does Rigg think judges might benefit from a stint in the house and the press attention it would attract?

"To come to the level of a general PR campaign and being on Big Brother would seem to me to be an absolute disaster," he says.

"But having said that, the judiciary needs to get much more professional in the way that it understands and deals with the media and that I think is where it's weak."


Sir Hugh Laddie's not a man who can be accused of being out of step with the modern world. As a High Court judge specialising in intellectual property, Sir Hugh felt keenly the contrast between the cutting edge discussions of modern technology he would hear and the traditional robes and wig he was wearing.

"It gets in the way of being a modern judge if you get too tied up with the traditional side of things."

Sir Hugh retired from the bench three years ago at the age of 59, a move which was seen as breaking judicial convention because it is usually an appointment for life. But despite the furore he provoked, Sir Hugh says the perception of his former colleagues as out-of-touch is unjustified.

The BBC's Judge John Deed
Not all judges are traditionalists

"They were not people who used quill pens. They're computer literate, savvy, quite ordinary, nice people and not hidebound traditionalists."

What do people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law think about the idea of modernising the judiciary?

Former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken has had more experience of the courts than most, famously losing a libel action against the Guardian newspaper and serving 18 months in prison after being convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice.

"There's a cry these days for judges to be more with it, more cool, more trendy, more switched on but I think it's not a bad thing that a judge who is on the bench, deliberately elevated above the courtroom, should be rather like that in real life.

"He, or she, should be something of an awesome figure, a respected figure."

PR battles

If judges want to retain the detachment that Aitken so admires whilst better communicating their message to the public, David Rigg thinks the monarchy offers a useful guide for how to pull it off.

"It is extraordinarily effective in their case that here we are in the early part of the 21st Century and all the opinion polls show the monarchy is still in an incredibly strong position despite all of the problems it's had.

"That has not happened by accident. That is because they took a very professional route with very professional people."

But Sir Hugh warns that turning to PR experts for help could backfire on his former colleagues.

"The judiciary, if they engage in trying to set the record straight and putting their story over by use of PR techniques will find themselves engaged in PR battles and they won't always win them."


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