OK – so it’s no great secret many Judges find dealing with litigants in person very frustrating. Fair enough and it’s also the case that litigants in person find the cuts in legal aid and the ever increasing court costs, which means they have no other option but self representation, equally frustrating. However, frustration is a very different scenario to biased, rude, contemptuous and sometimes corrupt conduct And unfortunately, in some cases, an independent bystander could come to no other conclusion than the fact this kind of conduct is happening in Courts across the Country.
Over the last 8 years I have repeatedly heard of or seen first hand where Judges, in the full knowledge a litigant in person, however much home work they have done, will not have the knowledge or skills of a trained professional in the Court, have abused their powers and literally attempted to denigrate or bully the defendant into submission. Recently I have heard this one too many times.
Illogical decisions, antagonistic attitudes and unreasonable demands are, it seems, an acceptable method used to close cases down. And while the learned Judge is obliging and polite to his colleagues, the same courtesy is sometimes conspicuously absent from the same Judge dealing with litigants in person.
I don’t for one minute pretend the majority of Judges behave like this and I know many of them go out of their way to show as much understanding and give as much latitude as possible to people who are struggling to put their case against legal professionals. However I take full responsibility for saying some do abuse their positions and are totally disrespectful of the public and the Court.
Why they do this is beyond me. Being a Judge is obviously one of the most serious jobs one can possibly have and it carries with it a huge responsibility. Why anyone would risk tarnishing their reputation with disreputable conduct in Court, is an anathema. But it does happen.
Here’s an extract from my book about HBOS which can’t be published until the Operation Hornet trials are over for reasons of sub-judice. This relates to a Judge’s comments at our (my family’s) 20th eviction hearing (out of 22) My husband represented us in 21 of those hearings as a litigant in person. *I’ve redacted the Judge’s name until the criminal trials are finished:
“…..Still, despite their best efforts the Bank never managed to evict us although one Judge, XXXXXX, did allow the eviction and he also refused us permission to appeal. Judge XXXXXX presided over four of our eviction hearings and, for what ever reason (and I have no idea why) he was extremely antagonistic to us and he seemed rather keen we should be evicted. To the point when at one hearing in January 2010, which he had to adjourn because we were waiting for a final decision on our application for legal aid (we were pretty desperate to get legal representation) Judge XXXXXX told the barrister for the plaintiff, “it is with a heavy heart I am going to adjourn this matter.”And his comments to us were “Mr and Mrs Turner, you have come within a whisker of being evicted from your house” and “..this matter has been adjourned far too many times and I [he] will draw a line under it.” On 26th March 2010 he finally did grant the eviction and he also refused us permission to appeal. XXXXX [deputy Chairman of XXXXXX at the time] was also at that hearing. We had to make a verbal application in the High Court for permission to appeal – which was granted…..”
Our defence and reason we felt eviction was entirely unreasonable and unjustified was because a well documented bank fraud had caused our business to close and consequently resulted in mortgage arrears and yet the same bank was trying to evict us. Another Judge had gone so far as to say (to an exasperated barrister for the bank) that it would be reasonable for Paul and I to live in our house for the rest of our lives without paying the mortgage if our allegations were proven to be well founded. Given the Judge who allowed our eviction hadn’t heard that case, I still wonder on what grounds he had a heavy heart at not evicting us? Why would he want to evict anyone? And it was the very unpleasantness of his comments and the way in which they were delivered which I found so remarkable. And I genuinely felt this Judge felt entitled to belittle and intimidate us – as if we were something the cat had dragged into his court room. Anyway I have used that as an example of perceived bias.
Here is an extract from ‘Guide to Judicial Conduct 2013’
A judge’s conduct in court should uphold the status of judicial office, the commitment made in the judicial oath and the confidence of litigants in particular and the public in general. The judge should seek to be courteous, patient, tolerant and punctual and should respect the dignity of all. The judge should ensure that no one in court is exposed to any display of bias or prejudice on grounds said in the Bangalore principle entitled “equality” to include but not to be limited to “race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, caste, disability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, social and economic status and other like causes”. There should be no bias or prejudice on those grounds, which are described in the principles as “irrelevant grounds”. In the case of those with a disability care should be taken that arrangements made for and during a Court hearing do not put them at a disadvantage. Further guidance is given in the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book. The duty of course remains on the judge to apply the law as it relates to allegedly discriminatory conduct.
It took me a while to find the above because when I keyed in Code of Conduct for Judges – there didn’t seem to be one! In the end I called a journalist friend who pointed me in the right direction. So it seems bias in a Court room is unacceptable? Maybe but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and making a complaint against a Judge after he or she has ruled against you (whether on unreasonable grounds or not) will not help you save your house or your business or help you get justice.
So what can anyone do to curtail this bad conduct? Like everything else that has gone wrong because of lack of transparency and elitist attitude, I think the only thing anyone can do is expose such conduct. If you’ve had a bad experience in a Court room and you feel a Judge has been rude, or biased or even corrupt, get the transcript and publish it. Maybe others (at arms length) will think you are wrong or over reacting because appearing in front of a Judge can be a very emotional experience which you may interpret more rationally a few days later – so don’t put the heading ‘Dodgy Judge’ or any think like it. I suggest you call it something like ‘Does this seem right?’ and see what feed back you get. If enough people were to do this and if the same names repeatedly cropped up demonstrating this poor conduct against litigants in person, the appropriate authorities might then take some notice.
If any members of SME Alliance feel they’ve been subjected to poor treatment by a Judge and they have the transcript of their case, please sent it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post it on the website for comment. I think it’s important to stand up against this sort of intimidation. SMEs are already highly disadvantaged in the civil courts against banks or big corporations with their deep pockets and teams of gold plated lawyers. So it is absolutely critical that the Judge remains totally impartial and doesn’t ruin the huge amounts of courage and confidence you need to put your case. It doesn’t look like the availability of legal aid will improve any time soon so we are all, Judges and litigants, stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. Unless a litigant in person is abusive or contemptuous, I see no reason why they (we) should be treated as second class citizens.
I would just finish by saying – I know a lot of people in the judiciary, lawyers, barristers, QCs and Judges. Most of them are extraordinarily intelligent, fair, good people. So please don’t think every court room is a torture chamber. But as in all barrels, a couple of rotten apples can completely ruin the cider and I am quite sure there are many in the judiciary who would be very grateful for clear examples of bad practice.