James Pickles: Judge who caused controversy both in and out of the courtroom

James Pickles was the self-proclaimed "human face of the judiciary" and "the People's Judge" whose outspoken and colourful attacks on the British legal establishment made him a household name in the 1980s and 1990s. Never one to shy away from his own self-belief and judgement, Pickles regularly attracted controversy for his contentious sentencing policy and his outspoken criticism of senior legal figures, once describing one Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, as a "dinosaur living in the wrong age" and another, Lord Hailsham, as a "brooding Quixotic dictator" born with a golden spoon in his mouth and as "an arrogant, pompous, toffee-nosed Old Etonian".

No one was safe from his outrageous opinions; he described Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, as "a scrubber", while Freddie Mercury was a "greedy bisexual", and he called for the release of Moors murderer Myra Hindley. Pickles was known for his tendency, on the bench, towards sexual innuendo, once famously referring to the Spice Girls in his court by saying, "They arrived on the scene breasts first, but I don't know their names."

Pickles' approach to sentencing (or lack of it, as some believed) made headline news when, in 1989, he jailed a young woman, Michelle Renshaw, for refusing to give evidence (due to fear) in an assault case against her partner. The Court of Appeal quashed the decision, which had infuriated MPs and women's groups. The judge, however, was unapologetic, saying, "The only sentence people really take notice of is loss of liberty." He also argued that women's groups should be baying for her blood, not his, since by refusing to give evidence the young woman was failing the "court of women".

Further controversy ensued when he jailed a teenage single mother, Tracey Scott, along with her 10-week-old baby, for six months because the mother, a supermarket cashier, had turned a blind eye to her friends' shoplifting; the friends were not sentenced. She, too, was later freed on probation after a ruling by Appeal Court judges stated that she should not have been sentenced to youth custody. Pickles' response was to call an impromptu press conference in a pub in which he described Lord Lane as "a dinosaur..." a remark which led the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, to declare that Pickles should be sacked. On another occasion he granted probation to a man who had sexually assaulted a girl of six. This resulted in Labour MPs signing a motion calling for his resignation.

Pickles again courted debate when he advocated leniency in sexual assault cases, describing women defendants' "clever manipulation", dressing in a way "calculated to invite attention" or even "asking for it". Women's groups and certain parts of the press were outraged.

Pickles' behaviour and views first brought him into direct conflict with the legal establishment and government in 1985 when he wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph calling for tougher punishments to deter offenders, criticising what he saw as the Conservative government's pressure on the judiciary to keep people out of prison. This breached a convention which stated that judges should not speak out of court. At that time, judges were constrained from this by a set of rules laid down in the 1950s.

By breaching the convention, Pickles was considered to have committed a grave offence and the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, came close to sacking him. It was always acknowledged that his Kilmuir campaign was motivated by frustration at the law's failings, in particular the shoddy treatment given to victims and the risks of miscarriage of justice. In the end, the episode led to a relaxation of the rules which had forbidden judges from making comments on public issues.

There were further rows when Pickles followed up the Telegraph article with one in another paper, and then appearances on radio and television, including Wogan. In 1989, he sailed even closer to the wind by switching from delivering general opinions on the law to commenting on cases in which he was involved – in one case while an appeal was pending.

In 1991, with his pension secure after 15 years on the bench, Pickles retired, to the enormous relief of the legal establishment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he became a columnist for The Sun and later the soft-porn tabloid the Daily Sport; he argued that having naked girls in newspapers does not lead to sexual attacks. While with the Sport, he described the then transport minister Steven Norris as "the fornicating ferret" and said of a sex offender who asked to be castrated, "Grab him by the balls and shove 'em in a vice."

Pickles explained, "100,000 people buy the Sport, not for my column but for the tits and bums, which is understandable being a tit-and-bum man myself to the extent of wanting to look at them and enjoy them. All normal men like tits and bums, preferably to touch, but, if they can't do that, many are quite happy to look at them on the page, and I like soft porn myself."

Even in retirement Pickles continued to make waves, advocating the legalisation of brothels and relaxation of the drug laws, in particular cannabis, claiming that the laws encourage robbery by pushing up prices. He took a role in a sparky Channel 5 programme, The People versus Jerry Sadowitz and appeared as a guest on Have I Got News for You? where he was subjected to some ridicule by Ian Hislop. He was also in an episode of Da Ali G Show, as well as becoming a well-paid after-dinner speaker.

Pickles gave full rein to his views in two books, Straight from the Bench (1987), the first of its kind by a serving judge, in which he advocated legalised prostitution and described pornography as something "most men have some interest in." Judge for Yourself (1992) was a defence of his legal career. These were followed by several novels including Off the Record (1993), a legal "bonk-buster".

James Pickles was born in Warley, Halifax in 1925 into a family of stonemasons. His great-grandfather, George, worked on Lutyens' Law Courts in The Strand, while his uncle was the famous post-war comedian Wilfred Pickles, who presented the radio show Have A Go, with his catchphrase "Give 'im the money, Barney." Pickles was the son of a former mayor of Halifax, Alderman Arthur Pickles, who made his fortune as an architect and financier.

Educated at the private Worksop College in Nottinghamshire, Pickles progressed to Leeds University for his law degree then Christ Church, Oxford, for his MA. He was called to the Bar in 1948 and practised as a lawyer in Bradford, becoming an Assistant Recorder in 1963. He was Crown Court Recorder of Bradford from 1972-76, when he became a circuit judge both for London and the north-east of England. His first head of chambers in Bradford was the radical liberal, J Stanley Snowden, "a lifelong Liberal who taught us how to stand up to to people, including some High Court judges, and even the Lord Chancellor".

In his youth Pickles harboured political ambitions, serving as a Halifax councillor and fighting two general elections in West Yorkshire seats. He contested Barkston Ash for the Labour Party in 1958, and Brighouse and Spenborough for the Liberals in 1966.

A man of his convictions, in 1993 Pickles maintained, "We've got to toughen up with criminals. As a judge, I was quite tough and believed that wicked people should be clobbered. Prison, in my view, does deter, punish and contain." Pickles is survived by his two sons, Roger and Simon, and his daughter Carolyn, an actress who appeared in Emmerdale.

Martin Childs

James Pickles, lawyer; born Warley, Halifax 18 March 1925; practised at Bradford 1949–76; a Recorder of the Crown Court 1972–76; a Circuit Judge 1976–91; married Sheila (died 1995; two sons, one daughter); died Hazelwood, Halifax 18 December 2010.

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