Expert witnesses tell of dozy and sexist judges

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The Independent Online

Many of Britain's judges are racist and sexist, cannot grasp technical detail and are particularly sleepy after lunch, a survey of expert courtroom witnesses has found.

Many of Britain's judges are racist and sexist, cannot grasp technical detail and are particularly sleepy after lunch, a survey of expert courtroom witnesses has found.

Others simply come across as foolish or out of step with modern culture and there was even one instance where a judge was found to be drunk during a trial. The responses from 150 doctors, engineers, linguists and other experts provide a rare insight into the workings of Britain's courts.

In one case a judge substantially reduced a compensation claim, arguing that the claim-ant, a professional woman, did not match the earnings potential of a man because she would stop working to have children. In another, a judge asked the barristers to interpret what a West Indian man was saying, despite the expert witness describing the man's testimony as "crystal clear".

On two occasions expert witnesses protested that judges were asleep. One expert witness, Dr Stephen Gladwell, complained that in an adoption hearing the judge was clearly drunk. "Luckily, with encouragement from the barristers and myself, he came to the right decision," Dr Gladwell said.

But the overriding picture is one of a judiciary unable to follow complex, and sometimes not so complex, evidence. One judge in a textiles case stopped proceedings after three days to ask: "Can you tell me ... what is a yarn?" Another witness, Dr Hazel Walter, said one judge, who had been trying rape cases for 20 years had, in 1996, never heard of the term "post- traumatic stress disorder".

Janet Porter, an expert giving evidence in a sexual assault prosecution, said a judge had asked whether an X-ray viewing box emitted X-rays. Of the 150 experts' accounts of their experiences in the courtroom, 30 remembered incidents involving judges, while others recounted occasions that exposed the shortcomings of barristers or solicitors.

Mark Solon, the author of the survey, said expert witnesses were in court to assist judges on the technical detail. But, he said, they sometimes "discovered, to their cost, that the judge is not picking up the evidence". Many judges did not interrupt proceedings until it was too late. "It may be that judges don't want to show that they have not understood what is being said. If the expert is particularly turgid, the judge might even have trouble staying awake after lunch."

One idea to help judges with complex evidence, suggested Mr Solon, might be to have "expert assessors" sitting next to the judge, offering guidance throughout the expert testimony. In complex fraud cases there is already growing support among lawyers to use a panel of experts or require jurors to have qualifications or experience in accountancy.

Mr Solon, whose firm Bond Solon has trained 1,600 expert witnesses and publishes its survey each year, said that judges should also be expected to have background knowledge so that they can be matched with appropriate cases. This is already done in the commercial and technology courts and the family courts.

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said that judges with particular legal backgrounds sat in the most appropriate division of the High Court. Last month, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, launched the "equal treatment bench book", which offered guidance on how judges should treat ethnic minority witnesses and defendants as well as how to approach other sensitive issues.