Bench-marks of daily life

After years of decay in stuffy courtrooms, judges have been let loose on an unsuspecting public. In the supermarket, on the tube, at the football match – is nowhere sacred?

SBHD: After years of decay in stuffy courtrooms, judges have been let loose on an unsuspecting public. In the supermarket, on the tube, at the football match – is nowhere sacred?

We journalists have long rejoiced in a public esteem second to none, or at any rate second only to child molesters and vivisectionists.

So it is always of interest, and no small comfort, when public odium descends on some other group. The reputation of politicians, for example, though never that exalted, has in recent times sunk like an iron bedstead.

Those other hate figures, estate agents, have come in for less contumely of late, mainly because the slump in the property market has meant fewer of us have any dealings with them. Lawyers, of course, are quite rightly despised, though to nothing like the same extent as their US counterparts. But it comes as something of a shock to learn that those at the peak of the legal profession, the judges, are thought by the public to be a pretty rum lot.

According to a survey on behalf of the BBC’s Law in Action programme, three-quarters of the population believe judges are out of touch with the problems of ordinary people and are dissatisfied with the legal system.

There are echoes here of Peter Cook’s EL Wisty who famously observed: “All in all I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what is more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with the judges.”

This, says legal writer Marcel Berlins, is monstrously unfair. The notion that judges are crusty old buffers whose knowledge and values are embedded in a Thirties world of privilege, snobbery and sheer ignorance about society outside their circle is a travesty of the truth.

What Berlins says next, is, I think, unintentionally revealing and explains more than he might suppose.

“That stereotype was once valid,” he says, “but there are few, if any, judges today who come anywhere near it. They take the Underground, have mortgages, wheel trolleys around the supermarket, go to football and have teenage children who play Take That albums very loudly.”

Each item in that sad catalogue goes a long way towards explaining the biliousness of the bench. Taken together they are such formidable obstacles to a sense of composure and reasoned impartiality that it is surprising that only relatively few judges are certifiably insane.

Let us take them in order, starting with the Underground. It is well known that tube trains are cylindrical Stygian hell holes infested by Glaswegian drunks, litter louts, hamburger eaters, and worse. Moreover the system is perpetually on the verge of breakdown. Any Lord of Appeal in Ordinary who has been stuck for an eternity below ground in a sweltering atmosphere of anxiety verging on panic that makes the Black Hole of Calcutta seem like a summer outing, will have had his reason jarred.

So judges have mortgages. They, too, know what it is to owe thousands of pounds against a depreciating asset in constant need of repair. They, too, will have heard the teeth-sucking noise made by the jobbing builder and will have watched the slow shake of his head as he declares that an apparently simple task is fraught with complexity, and utters the words, “It’s going to cost you, Guv.”

I must say it comes as a surprise to learn that judges wheel trolleys around supermarkets. I can’t say I’ve seen one, but then I suppose a judge in mufti is not easily picked out from the crowd. Has anyone spotted the Master of the Rolls fingering the Granny Smiths at Sainsbury’s? To wheel a trolley around a supermarket is to know the meaning of penitential suffering. Why is it that all couples over 60 shop together and stand frozen with indecision in the middle of an aisle for minute after endless minute? Why is it that the last item on your list can never be found no matter how many times you circle the store? Why is it that at the other side of the check-out the trolley assumes a life of its own and rolls away towards the exit with your precious supply of bottled Guinness still in it?

That judges go to football matches is truly astonishing. Again, it must be assumed they go along in scarves and bomber jackets rather than robe and gaiters and wear rosettes rather than carry those little posies designed to mask the smell of those on whom they are to pass judgment.

One scarcely needs to elaborate on the events of recent days to make the point that a football match is about as near as one can get to hell on earth. One poor woman in the crowd who witnessed the landing of the flying French philosopher is said to be in need of counselling. Others have been permanently robbed of speech by the experience.

Finally, we are told that judges have teenage children who play Take That albums very loudly. Well, why the hell don’t they stop them? How can a man who has clearly fathered a child late in life retain a shred of equanimity when he is cruelly bludgeoned by aural rubbish, and in his own mortgaged home? All that can be said for the experience is that it might foster a greater understanding of the homicidal urge.

Knowing what we now know, is it not a wonder that our legal system works as well as it does, or indeed functions at all? It should be a cause of deep public disquiet that the judiciary lead lives of such pain and affliction.

Something must be done. Judges should be relieved by law from any obligation to enter a supermarket, ride on the Underground, or be brought within a mile of Eric Cantona except in the unavoidable course of professional duty. And to whom do we owe this valuable knowledge? None other than those gatherers of unconsidered trifles, the aforementioned BBC pollsters.

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