Obituary: Judge Michael Argyle

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The Independent Culture
A VARIATION of the curse "May you live in interesting times" could, for defendants in criminal cases, be "May you have an interesting judge". Michael Argyle, who sat for many years at the Old Bailey, was never less than interesting. Unpredictable, volatile, right-wing, deaf to political correctness, he was one of the old-fashioned judges who are described euphemistically as "robust" and by disappointed defendants and not a few counsel who appeared before him as "a dog". Ultimately, with an early retirement in 1988 he paid the price for his views and utterances, but he remained unrepentant to the end of his life.

Argyle was educated at Westminster School and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was called to the Bar, joining Lincoln's Inn, in 1938 but with the coming of the Second World War his career was interrupted almost before it had begun. He served with the 7th Queen's Own Hussars in the Middle East, India and then Italy where he was awarded an immediate Military Cross for organising a tank crossing of the Po.

He returned to the Bar and the Midland Circuit in 1947. His best-known criminal case was his appearance for Ronald Biggs in the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Later he sent a contribution to the fund for Jack Mills, the driver injured during the robbery.

He became the Recorder of Northampton in 1962 and of Birmingham from 1965 to 1972 when be became a Circuit Judge, being appointed an Additional Judge at the Old Bailey. He had already made his mark as a reporter's judge with his comments whilst in Birmingham and over the years a small folio could have been compiled of some of his more outrageous remarks. Amongst them was his comment to an attempted rapist on whom he imposed a suspended sentence. "You come from Derby which is my part of the world. Off you go and don't come back." Others included "You are far too attractive to be a policewoman - you should be a film star"; "a vicious little sodomite from Glasgow" to a mugging victim; and, when a strike had cancelled television coverage of a Test match in the West Indies, "It is enough to make an orthodox Jew want to join the Nazi party." It is Argyle to whom the term "Thiefrow" is attributed, following a spate of thefts at Heathrow airport.

Shortly after he first sat at the Old Bailey, he became involved in a cause celebre when he presided over the so-called "Oz Trial". This satirical magazine produced a "schoolkids' issue", purporting to be written by children and which contained cartoons and articles on sadism and homosexuality. Despite attempts by the defence to introduce a certain amount of humour into the trial, Argyle was not amused, at one time reprimanding a group of American judges for sniggering.

Argyle's summing-up was hopelessly flawed and he then remanded the defendants in custody pending sentencing. The New Law Journal commented that the refusal by the Court of Appeal to grant bail was "another instance of the negation of the appellate function". Few expected there to be custodial sentences imposed. But when they were, the New Law Journal again commented that they were "indefensibly severe".

Argyle had seen the trial as one on which the survival of Christian civilisation depended. Years later, on Central Television, he commented that ". . . the traffic in soft porn and drugs resumed. If firmer stands had been taken by those in authority, a lot of people who have since been on drugs would never have been on them." In 1995 The Spectator was obliged to make an apology over an article by Argyle, to one of the Oz trial defendants, Felix Dennis, who at the time of the trial had been described by him as "very much less intelligent" than his fellows. Dennis had gone on to become a millionaire businessman.

Argyle was also upset, perhaps with more justification, when the Court of Appeal had reduced a life sentence on a soccer thug who had attacked a publican to three years. "Just about the next thing that happened was the Heysel Stadium tragedy. Football hooligans from then on felt they were fireproof."

He was a judge who believed that crime could be controlled by stiff sentences and that hardened criminals really only understood prison. He claimed complete support for his campaign to eradicate telephone kiosk vandalism in Birmingham. He also threatened life imprisonment for burglars, something which produced a reported, if temporary, 40 per cent drop in the crime rate in the city.

Argyle, however, was one of the judges who actually took a genuine interest in the welfare of those defendants whom he believed needed help and he would work throughout his luncheon trying to find work for young people. He attended night school to learn more about penology and was well ahead of his era when he suggested the criminal justice system should pay more attention to victims.

The end of his judicial career came with injudicious remarks at a speech to law students in Nottingham in July 1987 when he suggested that there were more than five million immigrants in Britain and that judges should be allowed to impose the death penalty in cases which carried penalties of more than 15 years. The Lord Chancellor, Michael Havers, reprimanded him and two months later Argyle announced he would retire the following year.

After that he continued to write to the newspapers about his betes noires, suggesting that Lord Longford had become a bore over his continuous championing of Myra Hindley and that the tapes of the children's cries should be played on prime time television and radio. "I warrant that more people will tune in than watched Torvill and Dean." He believed that, when Britain had extricated itself from Europe and the United Nations, things would get better and the weather would pick up. As for a suggestion by probation officers in 1990 that non-dangerous criminals should not go to prison, he considered that "claptrap", at the same time reiterating his call for the return of the death penalty.

A country and sporting man, who could not understand that his wife's racing colours "Nigger Brown, black cap" could cause offence, he was a noted whippet breeder. He was also keen on promoting terrier racing and, a life-time betting man who regularly visited bookmakers near the Old Bailey, was a supporter of National Hunt Racing. Convivial in private life, he was a member of the Carlton and the Cavalry as well as the Kennel Club. In the early 1950s he had unsuccessfully contested seats at Belper and Loughborough on behalf of the Conservative Party.

James Morton

Michael Victor Argyle, judge: born 31 August 1915; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1938, Bencher 1967, Treasurer 1984; MC 1945; QC 1961; Recorder of Northampton 1962-65, of Birmingham 1965-70; Circuit Judge and an Additional Judge of the Central Criminal Court 1970-88; married 1951 Ann Newton (died 1994; three daughters); died Fiskerton, Nottinghamshire 4 January 1999.