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Stephen Sedley

  • Judge for yourself by James Pickles
    Smith Gryphon, 242 pp, £15.99, April 1992, ISBN 1 85685 019 6
  • The Barrister’s World by John Morison and Philip Leith
    Open University, 256 pp, £35.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 335 09396 5
  • Advocates by David Pannick
    Oxford, 305 pp, £15.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 811948 8

The absurdity of ex-judge James Pickles is not that, the son of a mayor of Halifax and himself an Oxford graduate, he rails endlessly against the domination of the Bench by the Oxbridge upper middle class. There’s nothing wrong with being a traitor to one’s class. As the left-wing QC D. N. Pritt told the right-wing Labour leader Ernest Bevin, it was the only thing the two of them had in common. No, what’s odd about Pickles is that, as his book repeatedly reveals, he is an unimaginative authoritarian who has somehow managed to break all the rules in his private war against unimaginative authoritarians.

He appears not to see the slightest irony, alter endless diatribes against the snobbery of the legal profession, in remarking: ‘There can be problems on one’s release’ from prison ‘as even Gerald Ronson will have found. Any hopes of an honour or title will have crumbled.’ Even Lord Lane could be forgiven for thinking it pretty rich to be called a dinosaur by the judge who jailed Michelle Renshaw for being too scared to give evidence and who sent Tracey Scott to prison for six months with her baby for letting her friends take goods through her supermarket check-out. The Renshaw case, as it happens, is the subject of about the only conscious revelation in Pickles’s book. ‘I have not been able to reveal until now that it was Mr Justice Michael Davies who suggested that I jail Renshaw for seven days,’ he writes. ‘He asked how long I proposed to give her, and I said 21 days. “No, make it seven,” he said, and I did.’ There is not a trace of irony in this passage. Nor is there in his indignant assertion: ‘I was reported as saying that I was sending Scott to prison in order to deter accused women from becoming pregnant.’ What he actually said in court was: ‘I do not ... find that you deliberately became pregnant with a view to avoiding, a custodial sentence. The possibility, however, that other women may do that is one of many factors I have to bear in mind in this difficult case.’ Spot the difference? The whole nasty episode situates Pickles in the body of judges who send women to prison more often and for longer than men with similar records who are convicted of similar offences, and the rest of the book shows why. ‘One woman told me she hated Page Three as she had had a mastectomy. This is the key to female condemnation of nude photographs. Those girls have better, more exciting breasts than theirs,’ and so on and on. This man, one begins to think, has a problem. The Sun, having rightly called him a plonker, equally appropriately recruited him as a columnist.

The legal system has itself to thank for this judicial Alf Garnett’s endless appearances on chat-shows and in newspaper columns. The rule of silence which successive Lord Chancellors until 1987 imposed on all judges (we can perhaps now see why) offered a golden megaphone to whoever happened to be the first one to come out in public, not with a few guarded pomposities, but with spontaneous responses to journalists’ proddings. Since by definition it would be a maverick who did this, James Pickles was an egg waiting to land on the face of the judiciary.

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