Law: Justice can be blind

The blind have a future on the bench. By Grania Langdon-Down
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The Independent Culture
When Diane Cram takes her place today on the magistrates' bench, a gentle squeeze on her hand by the chairman will warn her when to bow as she can see nothing - neither light nor dark. But, with her nine-year- old German Shepherd guide dog, Prudence, at her feet, Mrs Cram is determined to maintain the dignity of the court and dispense justice as clear-sightedly as her fellow Justices of the Peace (JP).

Mrs Cram, 43, who has been totally blind for 15 years after suffering penicillin poisoning as a teenager, is the first blind fully-fledged JP to hear cases in the magistrates' court. She admits to being very nervous before her first day on the Exeter and Wonford Bench last Thursday. Her main concern by the end of the day was how she could manage the magistrates' heavy chairs. Today is her second day on the Thursday bench and her last for the year - a new rota will start in the New Year, when she will sit regularly.

"I was terribly nervous. But I didn't feel that there was anything I could not cope with, or missed, during the day's hearings. The solicitors were aware of the situation, so they clarified points verbally rather than just referring to notes or reports.

"We heard a variety of cases - bail being broken, a combination order of probation and community service not being kept, and I wasn't out of line with what the others on the bench were thinking."

In fact, she admits, the only concession that there was anything unusual, or that any change had to be made in court to cater for her lack of sight was that a bowl of water was put in court for Prudence.

Mrs Cram says that before she was appointed to the bench, she went with a friend to listen in on a case in court. Her friend remarked that the defendant was filthy, whereas Mrs Cram said she thought that he sounded quite respectable.

She says: "Appearances shouldn't make a difference, but some people might have thought that he was guilty because of the way he looked. I wouldn't choose to be blind, but there is some advantage in not being judgemental for its own sake."

Andrew Mimmack, Clerk to the Justices at the court, says they did not intend making any reference to Mrs Cram's blindness when she was in court. "It would be embarrassing for her and would make the court somehow extraordinary when it shouldn't be."

The court would make sure that she was not listed to hear certain types of cases such as those involving video or identification evidence or a large amount of documents, he adds.

Three other visually impaired candidates, who will start hearing cases in the New Year, were selected with Mrs Cram during the summer to take part in a pilot scheme to see whether the requirement of "satisfactory sight" should still apply to the magistracy.

The Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace concluded 50 years ago that blind people should not be allowed to become JPs because they could not read documents, examine plans or observe the demeanour of witnesses, and they would not have the confidence of the public.

However, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has argued that, with the exception of a minority of cases, blind people should be allowed to become magistrates. He will review their progress after a year. The prospect of blind magistrates has not been universally welcomed. Sir Michael Ogden QC, who retired last year after 33 years as a part-time judge, argues that "a zeal to avoid discrimination may in this instance result in injustice to either prosecution or defence, in some cases because the blind JP will not be able to observe the demeanour of a witness."

Sir Michael says he has received support for his views from magistrates around the country. He dismisses the Lord Chancellor's argument that blind magistrates would not be sitting alone but as members of a bench of three which would pool its assessments. He considers it is wrong to have anyone on the bench who is not fully effective. Blind people do many remarkable jobs, he concedes, but they should accept that it is not possible in a courtroom.

Lynda Belton, who will be sitting in Leicester, has no truck with Sir Michael's objections. "No one will be disadvantaged by having me on the bench hearing their case.

"A magistrate's main job is to listen, apart from reading the odd report, and I can listen as well as anybody else. What other people pick up from body language, I can get from the intonation in someone's voice."

Mrs Belton, 49, has no central vision but some peripheral vision, so while she cannot read, recognise people or drive a car, she can walk around "perfectly normally".

Nick Watson, who is Clerk to the Justices in Leicester, believes that her training has gone very well. He is pressing the Lord Chancellor's Department for authorisation for a pounds 3,000 optical character reader which scans printed documents and reads them back over headphones. This would enable Mrs Belton to consider pre-sentence reports or doctor's certificates along with her colleagues on the bench. Handwritten letters would have to be read out to her.

Mr Watson says: "I was led to believe that there would be no difficulties, because of the importance the Lord Chancellor was placing on the subject. However, wheels grind slowly. But I am confident we will get the equipment before she starts sitting."

In Wiltshire, David Brewer is the Clerk to the Justices at Swindon Magistrates' Court where Giles Currie and Peter Carr will be sitting. He was candid about his initial views about the ability of blind magistrates to cope.

"It soon became clear my preconceptions were absolutely ridiculous and that blind magistrates could operate in a very effective way - it was quite a conversion," he said.

Mr Brewer says that the principal difficulty would arise over cases with a high element of visual evidence, such as a dangerous driving case which hinged on a video filmed from a police helicopter.

"In a case like that, the magistrate would disqualify themselves from hearing it, something magistrates do quite often for a variety of reasons. There is also the concern that magistrates need to see witnesses and defendants so they can read their body language," said Mr Brewer.

"But, first of all, body language is a fairly unreliable measure of truth. Secondly, sighted magistrates are not trained in any structured way about reading body language, so arguing that it is an essential element of their decision-making is pretty curious. And thirdly, it is open to blind magistrates to judge someone's truthfulness from clues other than visual ones."

Mr Currie, 64, suffers from a deteriorating eye condition diagnosed 40 years ago. He cannot read but has scanned the 200-page Magistrates' Handbook into his computer which can read it back to him. This provides guidance on offences and penalties, given aggravating or mitigating factors, to ensure consistency of sentencing.

"It is fair to say that if I was involved in a motoring case and the whole thing hinged on a photo of a double-decker bus wrapped around a lamp-post, I wouldn't be very good. But they understand this at the court. They know in advance roughly what the evidence is going to be and can steer one away from cases where it is very visual.

"It is also inconceivable that I would sit with my good friend Peter Carr, so in a bench of three, there will always be two sighted magistrates."

Mr Currie also points to another benefit: "The legal establishment is totally mesmerised about whether people are Freemasons. If someone starts making semaphore signals from the dock, it's not going to influence me."