Hard labour or just a soft option? Judge for yourself

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The Independent Online
IT MAY sound like a good job, but a growing number of barristers are turning down the opportunity to become judges.

Many members of the Bar enjoy incomes of well over pounds 100,000 and are deterred by a salary that they say is insufficient and a workload that is increasingly heavy.

Last month, the Government bowed to judicial pressure and announced the creation of 10 extra High Court posts, taking the total to 95. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, also said he would establish a 'management-information system' to monitor the senior judiciary's workloads.

With a day that would seem to start at 10.30am and end at 4.30pm, judges have been envied by other professionals. A hundred years ago, Mr Justice Hawkins took to shutting his court on Derby Day. In 1954, a High Court judge disappeared from the court while the jurors were deliberating having instructed his usher to handle the 'formalities'. And in 1960, a trial judge berated the jury for taking more than two hours to reach a verdict, telling them that he had 'disorganised his travel arrangements . . . considerably'.

Today, judges argue, things are different. Not only do they spend up to six hours a day in court, but they undertake many 'onerous duties' that the public never sees.

Sir Stephen Brown is President of the High Court's Family Division, one of the most senior positions in England and Wales. He is responsible for hearing cases that involve, for example, child abduction, abuse and adoption as well as managing the other Family Division judges. His recent ruling that Hillsborough victim Tony Bland, kept alive by feeding tubes, should be allowed to die was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

Over a seven-day period at the end of last month, Sir Stephen, who earns pounds 99,524 a year, kept a diary of his movements as an illustration of his workload.

Friday 26 March: Sir Stephen gives the keynote speech at a conference in Cardiff as part of a rolling programme introduced under the Children Act 1989 to bring together different professions, such as lawyers, doctors and social workers. Leaving on the 7am train from Paddington, he returns to London for 'private dinner' that evening. Again, he has to speak.

Saturday 27 and Sunday 28: He spends the weekend at his home in Birmingham, where he has a total of about three hours reading in preparation for cases he will hear on Monday. He also deals with urgent letters.

Monday 29: He is at his chambers just before 9am - as he will be every day this week - to pick up the documentation on a complex wardship case listed for that morning. However, first, at 10.30am, he deals with an adoption hearing. This is followed by a short, informal chat in his chambers with the family: 'I will always make a point of seeing the parents.' At 4.30pm, he goes with four other senior judges to see Lord Mackay on the selection of candidates for the High Court bench. Returning home at just after 6pm, he has his 'homework'. 'I have to read the law reports, Law Commission papers and other material.' It usually takes one or two hours.

Tuesday 30: The morning in court but the case is adjourned at lunchtime. He spends the afternoon preparing for the Judges' Meeting next term when they will discuss, among other items, who will deal with cases outside London. He attends an Inner Temple committee in the evening.

Wednesday 31: He deals with six cases, the details of which he picks up on arrival at his chambers. Beforehand, there is a meeting with another High Court judge worried about the way a case is going. As usual, he receives a number of telephone calls at lunchtime about hearings. It is his time-consuming responsibility to ensure that suitably experienced judges are available to preside over family law cases. Two hours reading in the evening.

Thursday 1 April: The morning starts with a meeting to discuss arrangements for the rail strike next day. There is a problem over a complex trial to be held in Kent. No courtroom and no judge are immediately available. Sir Stephen ensures that both are found. He spends the day hearing the wardship case that was adjourned on Tuesday, giving judgment that afternoon. For the first time this week, he is able to eat lunch in the dining room of the Inner Temple. Until now, he had made do with a sandwich at his desk. In the evening, a Law Society reception.

It has largely been a typical week - although without the burden of giving a written judgment. Judges say their caseloads have grown heavier - for instance, the number of people appealing against conviction rose by 25 per cent last year - and hearings are more and more complex. As a result, delays have lengthened and it now takes 15 months before a criminal appeal can be heard.

Could the judiciary cut waiting times by spending longer hours in court? A senior QC, who sits occasionally as a recorder, says not. 'Generally they work pretty hard, and you have to concentrate when you're on the bench. As a barrister you can go on to semi-automatic pilot from time to time, but it's no good a judge doing that.'

His views are echoed by a left-wing solicitor. 'I can accuse the High Court bench of most things - but not laziness,' she said.

(Photographs omitted)

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