The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: A bit round the Bench

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I SEE my old friend and quaffing partner Judge Starforth Hill is up to his neck in it again. I have known him for yonks, ever since he changed his name by deed poll from plain 'Judge Hill' to 'Judge Starforth Hill', in order to lend greater dignity to his office. In two months' time, I am happy to report, he will be changing it again, in lieu of promotion, to 'Judge Ziggy Starforth Hill', so that, in his own words, 'those in the dock and beyond will begin to take me seriously'.

Have I lost you? Let me recap] Judge Starforth Hill has been given a thorough wigging by the gentlemen of the press for declaring that an eight-year-old girl who had been assaulted was 'no angel'. About 10 years ago, the poor fellow was subjected to similar vilification for suggesting that those who spend their dole money on drink should have their ears cut off.

Needless to say, Starforth's statement then was widely misreported. No one bothered to mention that what he in fact said was that their ears should be cut off - and I quote - 'under medical supervision'. Similarly, when last week he said that the child was 'no angel', the press neglected to report that he concluded with the words 'for she was in bed and wearing nothing more than pyjamas at the time', which sheds a different light on the case. O Tempora, O Mores]

I speak, as always, from personal experience. My long years serving the community as a Justice of the Peace have not been without their scars. Good Lord, no. The JP is forever being criticised for 'faulty judgement'. Do his detractors realise that he may well have had to take a snap decision on a matter about which he cared little and knew even less? Of course not]

One or two leaves from my own casebook as a JP may prove worthy of perusal. I first made the national press in 1973 when I recommended that a young woman who had been raped should be punished with an 18-month prison sentence. A predictable outcry ensued, but no one bothered to follow my reasoning. This carelessly attractive young woman - 'unmarried', needless to say] - had been known to wear lipstick, tights, dresses and so forth. Nor was she a stranger to the permanent wave. She had consequently been indecently assaulted by a reasonable, well-dressed family man, whom she proceeded, with chilling vindictiveness, to report to the police.

In my summing up, I pointed out that she had only herself to blame, as she had, through her own admission, been wearing a long green coat at the time. 'I find it hard to believe,' I said in my summing up, 'that she was not aware that the colour green in our culture gives the clear signal of 'Go', and thus this poor young man met his Waterloo.' Predictable press mayhem ensued, but I stuck to my guns, remaining dignified in the face of anarchy.

In the mid-Eighties, I was to suffer once more. The case was as open-and-shut as any I have encountered over 25 years devoted service on the Bench. Before me stood a man of proven good character who, after a busy day, had decided to let off a little steam by stealing a car belonging to an elderly spinster and driving it, perhaps a little mischievously, along a crowded pavement. Though he unfortunately ran over and killed a mother and 'toddler' (dread word]) who, for reasons of their own, had failed to get out of his way, he left the car in near-perfect condition and returned discreetly to his place of work without making any fuss and nonsense about the incident.

I thought for some good few minutes before granting the poor fellow an unconditional discharge with the recommendation that the elderly spinster be prosecuted for parking in the path of temptation. Result? Press outcry. But thankfully my old friend Starforth stood by me, declaring that, if anything, he would have gone further, sentencing the mother and toddler to a posthumous probationary sentence for undue care and attention while using a pedestrian thoroughfare. A doughty colleague, and a man of the very soundest mind.