Judges told to dispel `aloof' image

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Judges were told yesterday to shed their crusty image and start speaking out publicly to show they were in touch with ordinary people.

The Lord Chief Justice said it was up to the judiciary to prove they did not "live on another planet" and be prepared to air their views.

Lord Taylor warned that criticism of the court system was reaching new heights after decades of apparently aloof behaviour by the judiciary.

He told a conference at St Albans, Hertfordshire, that the media was scrutinising court cases as never before - often pushing reporting rules to the limit. "TV, radio and newspaper critics do not shrink from substituting their assessments for those made by the court. They lambast the judiciary for failing to satisfy what they conceive to be - and indeed aim to shape as - the public's demands," he said.

"A legacy from past reticence is that judges have acquired and still retain a reputation for being aloof and for holding themselves apart. The media often couple this perception with allegations, not borne out by the facts, that judges are out of touch.

"No doubt at one time it was acceptable for judges to restrict their pronouncements to giving judgment or passing sentences, but the shift in public attitudes under the growing influence of the media calls for a different approach.

"It is simply no longer sensible to remain silent when so much attention, much of it highly critical, is focused on courts and the judicial process. In the absence of any reply it would be assumed against the judges that they were so arrogant and complacent as to believe they could ignore criticism or that they had no good answer to it."

Lord Taylor said judges should on occasion be prepared to speak out and be ready to answer criticisms and explain policies. "If judges do speak out on topics which concern the public they may overcome the widely held belief, stemming from all those years of lofty reticence, that they are out of touch or even, as has been said, living on another planet.

"It should not be done too often, but it can and does have a role to play in the evolution and development of a sound legal system in which the public can have confidence."

Judges have theoretically been free to speak out on matters of public interest since the Lord Chancellor scrapped "vow of silence" rules in 1987.

With few exceptions they have chosen to stick to their traditional role of restricting their remarks to judgments made in court and relying on the media to give a balanced view of the case and the reasons behind sentences. Lord Taylor said curbs on the media could be necessary to "deter gross excesses" and courts could play a part in heading off inaccurate or misleading reporting.

Judges were now prepared in certain complex cases to issue written summaries of their findings aimed at explaining judgments to the public through the media. But he again rejected pressure for television cameras to be allowed in courts as stressful to witnesses, potentially damaging to justice and likely to generate the kind of media circus that marked the OJ Simpson trial in the United States.

Lord Taylor, who took up the post four years ago, has led the way in making his views public and is taking a prominent role in opposing tougher mandatory sentencing proposed by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.