Sitting in Judgment: The Working Lives of Judges

November 3, 2011

Penny Darbyshire is a seasoned judge watcher. Since 1971 she has work-shadowed almost every known species of English judge, from overworked district judges trying and sentencing minor miscreants in busy city magistrates' courts right up to the powerful justices of the UK's Supreme Court. Not only has she observed these fascinating creatures at work, sat in on their hearings, listened to their deliberations, eaten and drunk with them; she has also recorded in meticulous detail their views on almost every aspect of their working lives. All of this she has put together in a volume that combines not only her own and others' judge-watching research, but also descriptions of the different courts and the way that they carry out their business, plus accounts of the complex laws, rules and procedures governing their operations. Throughout the book, Darbyshire also offers her own assessment of the achievements and failings of the legal system and her proposals for its reform.

This is a considerable feat. But the problem for the reader is that this is a book with an identity crisis. It does not seem able to make up its mind whether it is social anthropology research, a textbook for law students or a report to the powers that be on the health of the civil and criminal justice systems in England and Wales. It tends to switch from one mode to the other with no clear indication of an overriding purpose. The one well-worn theme that appears throughout is the contrast between what Darbyshire calls the "folk- devil" image of the "stern old buffoons...pompous, outdated, part of an old-boy network of the educationally privileged" and today's real-life judges - that band of hard-working, decent, witty men and women who made up her interview samples.

Yet what sticks in the mind is not Darbyshire's unstinting praise for today's judiciary, but the tiny gems from the many cases that she observed - like the litigant-in-person claiming damages for her shock and distress at seeing her dog after a vet had (wrongfully, she claimed) removed one of its legs; the mother who, having refused to allow her children to see their father, smiles stoically while an expert psychologist witness assassinates her character; and the solicitor who delays the start of a trial by locking herself out of her home, where she has left her papers. These episodes, alongside the perceptive comments of the judges themselves, remind us that the daily task of the courts at all levels is the attempt to impose some modicum of order on the messiness of people's lives.

Darbyshire's major contribution, and that of other socio-legal scholars like her, lies in the exposure of the many injustices, incompetence and inefficiencies that have blighted and continue to blight our legal system. Sadly, her book brings home the stark fact that a succession of massive cuts in the Ministry of Justice's budget, particularly in legal aid and court staffing, have destroyed many of the reforms that these scholars helped to accomplish. These days, as one district judge put it, "Everything is to save money."

What this book does especially well is to show the extent to which the judges, almost as much as the courts' hapless consumers, suffer from and are frustrated by the appalling inadequacies of the UK's woefully underfunded civil and criminal justice systems. To quote one circuit judge: "I love the job. It's all the peripheral crap that does my head in."

Sitting in Judgment: The Working Lives of Judges

By Penny Darbyshire. Hart, 478pp, £.50. ISBN 9781849462396. Published 30 September 2011

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