How do you make a good judge?

Judge Pearl has just taken on the job of training our judiciary, and that includes not putting their feet in it
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The Independent Online

Do our judges really need to know who Gazza is? And does it matter that most of them wouldn't be seen dead wearing a shell-suit? Surely justice is best served when High Court judges spend their spare time boning up on current case-law rather than England's football fortunes. This is partly the view of Judge David Pearl, the new director of studies at the Judicial Studies Board (JSB), who has the job of training the judiciary. "Its no part of the JSB's role," he says, "to provide lectures on modern pop music or the success or otherwise of the English football team. We must assume that judges are well-informed."

Do our judges really need to know who Gazza is? And does it matter that most of them wouldn't be seen dead wearing a shell-suit? Surely justice is best served when High Court judges spend their spare time boning up on current case-law rather than England's football fortunes. This is partly the view of Judge David Pearl, the new director of studies at the Judicial Studies Board (JSB), who has the job of training the judiciary. "Its no part of the JSB's role," he says, "to provide lectures on modern pop music or the success or otherwise of the English football team. We must assume that judges are well-informed."

After all, says Judge Pearl - who claims a working knowledge of Seventies' pop hits - lawyers tastes are many and varied. "Lord Falconer, the former Solicitor General, knew the B-side of every record which had been released in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties," he points out.

Judge Pearl says it's a mistake to write off all judges as legal anachronisms out of place in the modern world. "Some judges will be very familiar with modern culture." The idea that a circuit judge, who spends weeks away from home sitting in provincial courts, only leaves his lodge to be driven to court is not one that strikes a chord with him. Many do get out and about in the community during their judicial tours. "They do familiarise themselves with popular culture. They watch TV and read newspapers as much as anybody else does," he says.

But research shows the vast majority of High Court judges are drawn from a narrow background - white, public school and Oxbridge. Recent efforts by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to redress the balance will take many years to reach the highest echelons. And it's often this kind of background that colours injudicious views and remarks attributed to some judges.

Earlier this year an Old Bailey judge hearing a rape trial was criticised for describing a couple's argument over consent as a case of "millennium mores". Judge Simon Goldstein told the jury they were "an ideal tribunal to try this case of millennium mores." Judge Pearl says the case show the importance of thinking very carefully how to refer to factual issues: "It clearly offended some people otherwise it wouldn't have been in the newspapers."

Judge Goldstein's remark must count as one of the five "judicial bloomers" a year Judge Pearl's predecessor, Judge Paul Collins, has said costs the profession so dear: he made the point to show there were another 50,000 cases that attracted no adverse media comment.

But judges do tend to catch themselves out when summing up. And a closer look at the newspapers will probably reveal more than the five official gaffes listed by Judge Collins. It seems there are still some who drift into streams of consciousness, while others just can't help slipping in their own un-tested prejudices.

So what makes a good summing up? "A good judge," says Judge Pearl, "is one who thinks very carefully before he expresses himself in front of the jury." And a bad one? "A judge who simply hasn't thought it through - what we try to do is teach judges not speak off the cuff - if you do, you regret it. We try to show them that bloomers aren't necessary."

Lord Irvine is determined to reduce judicial indiscretions. He appears quite happy to write a sharp letter to any offending judge. Next week he will launch a new guide to help all Britain's judges appreciate and recognise cultural diversity. The Equal Treatment Bench Book, is the judicial response to the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. It'll help counter any criticism that the courts have become "institutionally racist" in how they deal with the ethnic minorities.

The initiative follows a number of cases in which judges, through their own ignorance, have caused offence by failing to recognise the cultural differences in other races and religions. Occasionally they used names incorrectly or misunderstood the significance of a religious holiday.

Now Muslim witnesses or parties appearing in court during the fasting month of Ramadan should be offered breaks when giving evidence. If a witness or a party in a case is fasting during this holy month it may not be fair to make them give evidence: they may not be eating and drinking during the day and so appear slow, unintelligent or difficult in the witness box. If the judge isn't aware of this, says Judge Pearl, then it could cause unnecessary problems for the witness - and may even affect a case's outcome. He said: "They (the judges) have to be aware of this issue and provide opportunities to have a break."

No one doubts that Judge Pearl is the man to get across the new handbook's message. He's gained a reputation as a lawyer who's kept fully abreast of multi-cultural issues. For five years he was president of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal where he helped tackle the "enormous problem of asylum appeals". He still sits on the national security tribunal set up by Special Immigration Appeal Commission which hears especially sensitive cases.

Judge Pearl also has an education background. He taught law at Cambridge University for 22 years, and then sat as part-time judge before becoming a circuit judge in 1994.

Judge Pearl said "[We want] a well-educated judiciary who are aware that we are living in a multi-cultural environment." It was important everybody who has contact with the judicial system, irrespective of the result of the case, must be able to say: "I have been treated fairly."

The JSB is also tackling the massive task of preparing the judiciary for the Human Rights Act's implementation next year.