I find myself this Christmas with not one but two books to review, both by recently retired judges. Both slender and thus swift to read, but otherwise very different, not least because one is written by a former High Court Judge, whilst the other is penned by a retired District Judge. And what different worlds they are.
I’m afraid I’m going to gush about one and be a little bit hard on the other. Which is awkward.
I found The Modern Judge – Power Responsibility and Society’s Expectations (Sir Mark Hedley, Lexis Nexis Family Law, 2016) in my hotel room the morning after the Family Law Awards, fumbling blearily for the kettle. It’s possible that my roomie left it behind when rushing back to court at the crack of dawn, but I prefer to think that after he had compered the award ceremony, Sir Mark Hedley donned his red robes and snuck in silently whilst I snored and left it at the foot of my bed, like the white haired santa of the Family Division. You’ve probably guessed which one I’m going to be nice about…
May It Please You Madam – A Little Book of Legal Whimsy (Neil Hickman, The Book Guild Ltd, 2016) came conventionally, through the post. In fact it isn’t that slender, but it is light in content, well spaced out and broken up with cartoons.
Not long before Christmas I came across one of those catalogues of legal themed tutt, the sort of stuff that over enthusiastic law students seem to think will stand as categorical proof of their dedication and legal knowledge. I think it was slipped inside Barrister Magazine, although I can’t now recall. But you know the sort of thing : carbolic smoke ball tea-towels, unfunny cufflinks, inappropriate gavels and other assorted accessories of pompous try-hardiness. And I wondered to myself who in the hell is this stuff FOR? Do actual practising members of the bar buy this stuff? Or is this just the sort of prop that a certain type of person relies upon to look the part? Perhaps the great unregulated covet such things instead of actual qualifications, like this McKenzie friend with his “proper solicitors briefcase”? Anyway, by the time I had got to the end of May It Please You Madam, I was asking myself the same question – who is this book FOR?
This book should be great. It is a collection of amusing snippets and stories of life at the judicial coal face, much drawn from former DJ Hickman’s own experience at the District Bench, or that of his colleagues, mixed with much material from notorious cases that we all learned of in our time as law students. So it is comfortingly familiar to legal readers, and many of it’s stories will have been heard and told by readers of this blog. But somehow something died in translation and the funny leached out. Told over dinner, or in the judicial corridor or robing room to members of the same community these anecdotes are momentarily funny, sometimes laugh out loud funny. But taken out of context and strung clumsily together one after the other after another and another in print, they just deflate and give an overwhelming sense of ennui. So, for example, the laboured retelling of an email exchange between judges about a court order that mistakenly refers to doughnuts instead of documents was just excruciating to read, as was the reduction into print of the only mildly and fleetingly amusing solicitors’ typo regarding office closure over Christmas (office shit instead of shut). This sort of banal cock up is not special to the field of law (although as one of the few industries still quite heavily reliant upon audio-typing we do have some corkers). But it is the stuff of everyday. And even in a book with “Whimsy” in the title, the material cannot always bear the weight of print. It’s ironic that Lord Wilson in his foreword identifies at that court room humour arises out of the live spoken word, before giving way to DJ Hickman who skilfully suffocates the humour out of each anecdote by the mere act of writing it down. It is possible to convert legal or courtroom humour to writing, as the recently deceased Gary Slapper proved, but it turns out it isn’t as easy as he made it look.
There are good things in this book, but much of it we have heard before – although I did not know until now that the infamous response letter in the matter of Arkell v Pressdram did not put off the claimant, and that litigation ensued anyway (albeit unsuccessful).
But, I’m sorry to say that I got much more entertainment from the immediacy of the #freelegaltips hashtag that was trending on twitter recently than I did out of this book. I ploughed through to the end, like someone fishing through a bowl of pistachio shells hoping to find one last nut. But I got to the end dissatisfied – the funny bits had been drowned out by the bits that flopped.
I was also left unsure whether this book was intended for lawyers or for non-lawyers : I thought lawyers would mainly have heard it all before and non-lawyers would wonder what all the fuss was about and take it as confirmation of just how dull we lawyers must be – and at moments the author forgot to translate for the non-lawyer and I suspect some anecdotes would make little sense to a reader not conversant in the legalese that the author (rightly) takes the mickey out of.
So, I’m sorry to say that this particular Madam was a little bit underwhelmed. But perhaps the mysterious lot who buy gavel cufflinks, legal advice dice and bears with “worlds coolest lawyer” on their tiny knitted sweater will love this book.
In contrast however, I did very much like Sir Mark Hedley’s little book, The Modern Judge. It is really little more than an extended essay, but it is characteristically humble, thoughtful and thought provoking. It asks some very important questions, and they are questions that we ought to be asking – amongst ourselves within the legal community, and discussing with other members of society. I hope that LexisNexis will market this outside the legal community.
The Modern Judge does not only cover the Family Court and Court of Protection, but it does take those jurisdictions as its main focus, and it is through a conscientious consideration of the wide ranging and really very draconian of powers that Hedley is able to ask wider constitutional questions about the rule of law and the societal consent that is required for judges to exercise their powers.
The question of state intervention in the private lives of families and the tensions between child protection and the right to family life is sensitively considered here, and if ever any person were doubtful that judges appreciate the weight of responsibility they bear they should read this book. Of course Sir Mark is not just any judge, he is a judge who was already known as humane and wise, and whose wise words about the need of society to tolerate diverse standards of parenting including the barely adequate are often quoted in court (although Sir Mark quipped wryly at the first Transparency Project conference that they were only ever quoted by the side about to lose) (see Re L (Care : Threshold Criteria)  1 FLR 2050, approved by the Supreme Court in Re B  UKSC 33). But although one cannot promise that every judge is a Sir Mark, those who imagine judges as wielding their powers in a cavalier and thoughtless way may be reassured to read this. The seriousness with which the task is treated by Sir Mark is something which we are entitled to expect from all members of the judiciary.
Hedley draws a number of vignettes of cases he has tried over the years, illustrating perfectly just how impossible some of the questions we ask our High court Judges to answer really are – anyone who thinks its a cushy job should read this book. He draws from his CoP experience as well as family, including forced adoption cases. He reminds us of the relative recency of adoption as a legal concept, but does repeat the error of many other illustrious colleagues in stating that of all of Europe we are the only jurisdiction to do non-consensual adoption (we’re not – google Clare Fenton Glynn). But the broader point about how our type of adoption is culturally alien to many living in this country and falling under the jurisdiction of the courts of England & Wales is well made. He acknowledges, refreshingly, that :
I do not believe that we have yet achieved a consensual view in our society on this [adoption], although current policy of all main political parties is very much in support of adoption. The problem is that the concept of adoption is attractive in our society and has, at present, strong official support. The difficulty comes when the story of an individual case is told, the true loss to parents is fully understood, and the consequences of adoption laid out in specific terms. This difficulty becomes the greater if there is personal knowledge of the family, and greater still where – and this is often the case – the parents’ failure to care is not culpable but, because of a lack of ability, not brought about by their own actions. These are tensions inherent in our current approach to adoption and child protection.
Through these examples Sir Mark sets out the irreconcilable conundrum facing every family judge daily – how to exercise one’s discretion so as to draw the proper balance between protection and private life.
It is clear from reading the book that this is not a new topic for this judge, but something about which he has given anxious thought throughout his years at the bench. He is obviously alert to various familiar areas of particular public public anxiety, debate or complaint :
- the differing standards of proof as between criminal and family courts, the justifications for those distinct approaches, and the practical problems this gives rise to
- the fallibility of witness evidence and of human ability to reliably assess it – and thus the inherent difficulties of a system heavily reliant upon oral witness testimony
- the danger of a lack of accountability in the exercise of discretionary power – and the particular protections against the arbitrary exercise of state or judicial power afforded by our Human Rights legislation
- the inevitability of injustice through human error in some small number of cases
- the tension between doing justice in public and the need to protect privacy and the dangers of a public who are unaware of the judicial powers that are being exercised in their name
On this last point he says this :
While I was a serving judge I became increasingly concerned that many in society are simply unaware of these powers, especially the discretionary powers, vested in the modern judge. One of my purposes is to offer some description and explanation of those powers. In a democratic society, these powers should be exercised by the judges with the consent of that society. If there is no proper understanding of these powers, how can there be proper consent to their use? Moreover, the use of these powers involves society placing extensive trust in judges to exercise them properly. On what basis may such trust be given? Is it a trust that our judges can actually justify or fulfil? These are some of the issues on which I would like to reflect and which I believe to be of some importance in the life of our society, with its inherent sense of fairness and desire for justice.
Later he says :
The more I reflect on this question of judicial discretion …the more I am conscious of the power which society has put into the judges’ hands, and which generally Parliament has shown no desire to curtail. The truth is that the system can only work credibly for so long as the judges received (and, of course, deserve) the confidence and consent of the society in whose name they act. That trust must be predicated on an understanding of the nature and extent of those powers, and that is one of the principal purposes of this book. The reality is that in exercising these powers the judges are not just reflecting society, but are making an active contribution in influencing its development. That is why…the tension between protection and autonomy – is so important.
Thus, The Modern Judge is an exercise in transparency.
Of the media Hedley says :
If it can be said that the media are a little too ready to respond to individual complaints against the state, and that the agents of the state are a little too defensive in their response, it does not hide the fact that there are real issues and that there is all too often more than one reasonable view and more than one reasonable outcome available.
I don’t know how many parents would be likely to read this book but I’d certainly recommend it to them, as well as to judges, lawyers and social workers alike. As well as to a few journalists.