Leading Article: A dose of reality for the judiciary

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The Independent Online
LORD MACKAY is to be commended for his move to ensure that justice is dispensed in a manner that is 'racially and culturally neutral'. The Lord Chancellor has ordered all circuit judges, recorders and assistant recorders to attend a one-and-a-half-day racial awareness training course. The aim is not just to encourage even-handed justice, but also to enable the judiciary to avoid causing offence, through ignorance, to members of racial minorities.

In an ideal world, no such courses would be needed. Judges would be people of such broad humanity and culture that they would be in no danger of patronising or offending, let alone unconsciously discriminating against, a non- white defendant. Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, evidently believes that ideal world exists: his reaction to the Lord Chancellor's move was that 'if judges have been properly selected, they will not be racially prejudiced'. Quite so, m'lud.

In reality, some concentrated, and preferably rather frightening, instruction in what it is like to be the only black person in a courtroom is likely to be an eye-opener to most judges. Equally, factual information about cultural differences between different racial groups can only be helpful. Ignorance breeds prejudice, knowledge fosters understanding, understanding makes for even-handed justice.

At least one authoritative study - from Oxford's Centre for Criminological Research - found discrepancies in the sentencing of whites and non-whites that seemed to be at least partly attributable to racial discrimination. Its conclusions prompted the Commission for Racial Equality to comment that had sentencing by the courts come within the 1976 Race Relations Act, the discrimination revealed would have been unlawful.

Lord Mackay may care to contemplate a few supplementary courses intended to enhance the judiciary's grasp of contemporary realities. Many judges would benefit from at least a two-day course in popular culture; and virtual reality techniques might perhaps be used to heighten the effect of instruction in how it feels to be both poor and hungry. Meanwhile, it is hard not to envy those charged with the task of sitting the judges down and drumming into them how they might feel if their coiffure consisted of dreadlocks rather than wigs.