Court officials sacked in record numbers

Bad conduct sees 30 law officers disciplined, and code is set to get tougher
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The Independent Online

Record numbers of judges, magistrates and other court officials are being kicked out of office as ministers continue to thrash out a stricter code of discipline for members of the judiciary.

The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice last year sacked a record 30 law officers – three of them judges – for transgressions including criminal convictions, making inappropriate comments in court or misusing their legal status. They include a magistrate jailed for manslaughter and a circuit judge who quit after she was convicted of letting her dog bite a neighbour.

The number of cases dealt with by the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC) since it was established in 2006 has spiralled above 9,000. Almost 150 judges, coroners, magistrates and tribunal members have been removed from office during the period.

But pressure groups maintain that too many judges and magistrates still escape punishment for misbehaviour towards those at the sharp end of the justice system. Tom Skewis, chief legal officer of Children Need Families, said he had often witnessed judges being rude to parents. "Some of them are getting away with being rude and overbearing because they are a law unto themselves".

OJC figures show that the annual toll of complaints against the judiciary has remained relatively stable – at more than 1,600 – over the years, although many of these were thrown out because they referred to trial decisions or the handling of cases.

But the number of individuals who have faced disciplinary action has risen steeply, from 32 in 2006-07 to more than 79 last year. The number forcibly removed from office almost doubled, from 16 to 30, and the overall total now stands at 149. Several more resigned or retired during investigations into their conduct.

The disciplinary process, which ensures judges are investigated by their peers, is overseen by the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. Sanctions range from reprimands and formal "advice", to removal from office. The Government is putting the finishing touches to a "more streamlined and efficient" system.

In recent months, the OJC has reprimanded Judge Peter Bowers, who told a burglar that stealing from homes took "a huge amount of courage". Deputy District Judge Lucy Owens resigned last September, after an inquiry into her decision to enter an Individual Voluntary Arrangement – an alternative to bankruptcy.

John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "It is always disappointing to hear of magistrates who are the subject of disciplinary action, though the number remains a tiny proportion of all 24,000 serving magistrates. Perhaps some of the answer lies with society itself which appears to be more demanding of issues relating to 'customer service'... rendering it more likely that people will make complaints."