Obituary: Sir James Miskin
Monday 20 December 1993
ON THE EVE of his retirement, in July 1990, after 15 years as Recorder of London, James Miskin became involved in the biggest controversy of a career which had as the years passed, become increasingly fraught with unfortunate incidents. In an interview on BBC TV's Newsroom South-East he described the decision to quash the conviction of the Guildford Four as 'mad' and postulated that there was a 'live risk' that the IRA had bribed a young policeman to 'cook up' documents which would ensure their freedom. The next day, amidst howls of protest over his comments, he apologised, saying he had not intended to suggest that Gerry Conlon or the others were guilty.
Miskin was born in 1925, and educated at Haileybury, where he boxed, and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he was Senior Heath Harrison Exhibitioner. From 1943 to 1946 he served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
He was called to the Bar in 1951, joining the South Eastern circuit and the chambers of the future Lord Simon of Glaisdale where, as was the practice at the time, he learnt his craft taking undefended divorce cases for a guinea a piece. He was persuaded by Desmond Ackner, later Lord Ackner, who is said to have noted his ability in the unlikely environs of the Dartford County Court, to join chambers at 4 Pump Court, in the Temple. There Miskin developed a substantial practice in both family work and medical negligence. He took silk in 1967 when he had served three years on the Bar Council. Although principally in civil chambers, he became deputy chairman of the Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions in 1968, a position he held for three years, and then he became a Recorder of the Crown Court in 1973.
In 1975 Miskin was something of a surprise appointment as the Recorder of London, succeeding the much-loved Sir Carl Aarvold. Perhaps his appointment was due to the recommendation of Mr Justice Melford Stevenson who saw in Miskin the polished after-dinner speaker needed to play the role as the second voice, after the Lord Mayor, of the City of London. Miskin did not take office immediately; instead he concluded the Thalidomide case in which he acted for the plaintiffs in their action against Distillers.
Once known for his beautiful speaking voice, he became increasingly hoarse, and was referred to as 'Whispering Jim'. Miskin was something of a connoisseur's judge. He could be sharp with the less able counsel who appeared before him. More seriously, at a time when consistent sentencing was being sought more and more by both the Court of Appeal and the public, Miskin could vary markedly in the punishment he handed down. His bark could also be worse than his bite. Sentencing a stepfather for indecent assault he called for longer sentences in such cases, described the man's behaviour as revolting, but then imprisoned him for what was seen as a lenient six years.
He was continually at loggerheads with the administration, attacking the Treasury's failure to fund prison expansion and he did not receive his knighthood on appointment as was customary, waiting instead until 1983. The case load and administration of the Central Criminal Court, as well as the heavy social side of his appointment, took toll of him.
He became increasingly controversial, calling for the minimum age of jurors to be raised to 25, and the return of capital punishment for premeditated murder. At a Mansion House dinner in 1989, he referred to a black man as 'a nig-nog' and spoke of 'murderous Sikhs' - at a time when he was trying a case involving members of the ethnic minorities. The matter led to criticism by the Court of Appeal.
Miskin is a sad example of the truth of Mark Antony's words that 'the good is oft interred with their bones'. He will be most remembered not for the excellent work he did - particularly in the early part of his tenure as the Recorder during which he was described by a senior Old Bailey practitioner as 'courteous, witty, kind and helpful to advocates'; as a member of the Bar Council and as chairman of the committee into the status of women at the Bar; for his work as an Appeal Steward of the British Boxing Board of Control; or as chairman of the Board of Discipline at the London School of Economics: but for his increasingly wayward behaviour as ill-health overtook him. In his later years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
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