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December 25, 2014

should judges speak out in response to criticism?

Judges never do media interviews and never give statements about particular cases.  But should they?  Would it improve confidence in the judiciary if they did engage with their critics?  These questions were tackled by Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, in a recent speech .  It gives great insight into the culture of the judiciary and what its like to face harsh criticism when you can’t respond.  He tells the story of being personally criticised by Michael Howard on the Today programme for his decision to let some IRA prisoners apply to the Parole board earlier than usual according to guidelines.  Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, criticised both the decision and Lord Dyson’s previous record.  In those days judges never responded either individually or institutionally to criticism, but Lord Dyson was clearly shocked and hurt.  Things have moved on, and Lord Dyson has never again been subject to such direct criticism.  Since the 90s when many ministers criticised judges, things seemed to have calmed down.  Ministers seem to have decided that it is not right to criticise people who cannot fight back, or maybe they just think it is counter-productive. Lord Dyson now accepts that some criticism is valid, if not inevitable.  He think criticism of decisions is valid, as long as the judge is not subject to personal criticism.  He thinks judges should respond but that rebuttal is better done by the judiciary as an institution rather than individual judges.  I’m not sure he’s right, but appreciate his openness to criticism.  I myself criticised a judge’s decision recently when Will Cornick was given a life sentence with a minimum of twenty year,s for murdering the teacher Ann Maguire .  I didn’t mean to criticise the judge personally and hope it didn’t seem that way.  His sentencing was totally correct according to our law, though there is always flexibility within the law.  My criticism was more about our system – that a child could be given a life sentence, and such a long one at that.  I also questioned the naming of Will Cornick, where the judge had full discretion to name or not.  It is odd criticising a decision when you know the judge cannot respond.  But even so, I don’t think its wrong.  Its important for both individual judges, the judiciary and the government to get feedback about sentences, even if they think the criticism is wrong.  Feedback helps improve performance and challenges the status quo.  I think judges would prefer to not to get feedback via a media interview, but there are few routes to given a view on sentences, if you were not personally involved in the case.