Why justice is blind but there are no blind justices

The Lord Chancellor's adherence to a 50-year-old edict shows a lack of vision, according to campaigners

Justice is supposed to be blind - but not those who dispense it in the magistrates' courts, according to a 50-year-old edict.

Diane Cram, who is 41 and has three children, has been totally blind for the past 13 years, after suffering penicillin poisoning as a teenager. A lecturer for the Guide Dogs for the Blind, Mrs Cram decided she would like to combine her interest in law and order with her belief in civic duty by becoming a magistrate.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, however, remains persuaded by the conclusions of the 1946-48 Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace that blind people should not be allowed to become JPs because they cannot read documents, examine plans or observe the demeanour of witnesses, and they would not have public confidence.

Mrs Cram, who lives in Exeter, Devon, is scathing of suggestions that her ability to decide whether or not a person is guilty or innocent of a crime is affected "one iota" by her blindness. "I have been brought up on the belief that our legal system is based entirely on evidence submitted by defence and prosecution lawyers and not how the defendant might appear in the dock," she says.

She took her case to Steven Reynolds, Justices' Clerk in Exeter and East Devon. He says that documents could be read out by the party producing it or by a colleague. If a case relied heavily on plans or photographs, the blind JP could be assigned to another case, as happens when there are conflicts of interest.

He believes a blind justice could learn more from the person's voice and be less likely to be misled by their body language. There is no reason to believe the public would not welcome the appointment of blind JPs, he adds.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind has been campaigning with the TUC for the Lord Chancellor to drop his objections. Its chairman, John Wall, who has been blind since a child, is a solicitor and Chancery Master. The RNIB hopes to have the issue raised in the House of Lords and to open up the question of whether body language is so crucial in the courtroom that inability to see it disqualified a potential JP.

"The figure of Justice on the Old Bailey is said to be blind because she is supposed to be impartial," says Mr Wall. "Those of us who have been blind for years are quite used to forming judgements about people by listening to their voices. Our view is that body language is more likely to be a distraction or a deception."

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