Blogging by magistrates has come in for some criticism from the Senior Presiding Judge in the last six months or so. Content per se has not been the subject of such criticism but the very act itself. Others will judge the implications of such criticism. Those who live by the sword must not be surprised if they die by the self same instrument. Remarks by more senior judiciary, and for J.P.s all judiciary is more senior, from time to time go unreported except in the provincial press. To focus attention to what is already in the public domain, albeit unremarked, has long been a feature of this blog. Readers will have made up and I hope continue to make up their own independent minds on such topics.
Most sentencing in our criminal courts is now contained in a little black book known as Sentencing Guidelines. Judges and magistrates are well used to making clear their route which led to their eventually pronounced sentence. Decisions on bail are also ensconced with guidelines based on the precept that all defendants, innocent until proved guilty, are entitled to bail. It is a matter of judgement that they should be remanded in custody when the bench has fears eg of interference with witnesses, committing further offences or failing to appear which cannot be allayed by any conditions offered by the defendant or on his/her behalf eg residence, tag, security etc. Many of my colleagues are of the opinion that such decisions are amongst the most onerous they have to make and it is easy to understand why. Depriving an unconvicted defendant of liberty is a heavy responsibility. Indeed the recent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act specifically has restricted the remanding in custody of various defendants in the magistrates` courts.
In the light of all the above it is remarkable to read the reported comments of Judge Robert Moore at Grimsby Crown Court. From his lofty perch he has publicly criticised local Justices of the Peace for their granting defendants bail which in his opinion were erroneous judgements. "Astonishing how often the local magistrates here do not remand in custody." He was not referring to a single decision. He made a generalised comment which in effect has denigrated his junior colleagues and IMHO has brought the judiciary into disrespect. The guidance on blogging to which I referred above contains the following, “They must also avoid expressing opinions which, were it to become known that they hold judicial office, could damage public confidence in their own impartiality or in the judiciary in general.” It would seem, by that statement, that my criticism of H. H. Judge Moore is more likely to damage public confidence in the judiciary than the remarks uttered by the judge himself.
Two extracts from the Media Guide for the Judiciary might offer some illumination:-
“Making planned statements in open court.
Courts and most tribunals operate in public, and any comment made by a judicial office-holder in public session is regarded as open to reporting. This extends to comments made when there’s no reporter in the room, as long as someone has repeated it to them. Judges may occasionally read out statements in open court, for example commenting on misreporting of a case."
"Lord Mackay a previous Lord Chancellor has stated that” judges must avoid public statements either on general issues or particular cases which might cast any doubt on their complete impartiality, and above all, they should avoid any involvement, either direct or indirect, in issues which are or might become
This begs the question whether or not public criticism of magistrates by a crown court judge is politically controversial.
I await any comments from the Office for Judicial Complaints.