High Court judges subjected to best and worst of verdicts: Justices put to test in survey of barristers and solicitors. Jason Bennetto reports

Jason Bennetto
Wednesday 06 April 1994 23:02 BST

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SOME OF Britain's most senior judges are described as 'awful', 'weak', 'wimpish' and incapable of making a decision in a survey of senior barristers and solicitors.

The criticism comes in a study by the magazine, Legal Business, which has produced a league table of the 'five worst' and 'five best' High Court judges - all of whom are paid more than pounds 90,000 a year.

Among the least respected and most disliked judges, according to more than 130 lawyers, were Sir Jermiah Harman and Sir Peter Cresswell.

The scathing comments about Mr Justice Cresswell, 50, who was appointed three years ago, include: 'As far as the worst are concerned, unfortunately there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. But without doubt the golden challenge cup for copper- plated awfulness goes to Cresswell, and any solicitor or barrister who fails to mention him on their list of the worst judges is lying.'

Another lawyer said: '(He) is incapable of making up his mind. It is said that if his wife puts out two bowls of cereal for him, he never gets to work.' He is described as 'very wimpish when it comes to making decisions because he has a fear of offending anyone', is accused of trying 'to run cases without truly having grasped what it is about', and being 'slow as a hearse'.

Remarks about Mr Justice Harman, 64, a High Court judge for 12 years, include: 'He is still the worst judge in the country, he has reached unparalleled depths of awfulness. It is nothing short of an uncomfortable adventure to appear before him, and in terms of delivering justice he is nowhere.'

'(He is) a man who jumps wildly to conclusions. He is impolite. He is the judge I least want to appear in front of. If he doesn't like you, then you've had it, it's frightening.'

Other verbally savaged judges are Sir Francis Ferris, 62, appointed four years ago: 'pompous, bullying, weak, lacks decision-making power'.

Mr Justice Rattee, 57, appointed in 1989, was said to 'live up to his name on every occasion, he forms opinions too quickly, and doesn't listen, an ordeal to have to appear before him'.

Mr Justice Brooke, 58, a High Court judge for six years, was said to be 'very difficult to deal (with) in court, very tough on advocates'.

Of the judges at the bottom of the popularity league, only Mr Justice Cresswell - picked by two lawyers as their favourite - was prepared to respond to his critics. He said: 'I do not accept the alleged criticisms of my decision-making or other judicial abilities . . . Ill-informed and unjust criticism in whatever tone will never deter me from taking care with my work.' He added that the nature of his work in the commercial courts meant that his workload was heavier than some judges and thus he came into contact with more lawyers.

Legal Business said it was careful to canvass opinions from City solicitors, Queen's Counsel barristers, and junior barristers from a range of legal firms from several chambers to ensure there was a representative selection of views.

The top five in the popularity ratings were headed by Mr Justice Millett, who was 'a star, prepared to take risks, and make new laws'; followed by Mr Justice Phillips: 'very clever, very fair'; Mr Justice Morritt, Mr Justice Vinelott, and Mr Justice Nicholls.

Among the general comments the magazine noted: 'Time and again, the solicitors and barristers surveyed complained about judges getting bogged down in technicalities and minutiae at the expense of the overall sense of the case.'

One barrister said: 'There are judges who treat law as a world separate from the one everyday people live in.'

Parliament should consider legislation to allow the public in extreme cases to sue judges who are incompetent and have caused injury, a High Court judge suggests today.

Mr Justice Sedley says there is a powerful argument for a system for people to claim compensation when judges could be shown to have 'deliberately or recklessly abused his or her office and caused compensable harm'.

In today's London Review of Books, he asks: 'Why should judges not be accountable like others if they do unjustifiable harm to people who have come or been brought before them for justice?'

Reviewing Suing Judges: A Study of Judicial Immunity, by Abimbola Olowofoyeku, Mr Justice Sedley said he accepts there are legitimate reasons for the present immunity, in particular if it is too easy to challenge court rulings, this could destabilise the legal system.

However, he calls Mr Olowofoyeku's proposals for reform 'cogent'. They are that a judge could be sued if the judgment had been legally quashed and exact details were available about the allegations of misconduct. Either a special court with a majority of lay members, or an ombudsman would carry out the judgment.

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