Two news stories over the weekend will not have made happy reading, at least for two family court judges. Both described cases in which the judges had made serious errors of judgement, such that the Court of Appeal considered that they should cease to deal with the cases, which should be passed to other judges.
The first story appeared in The Telegraph on 31 January. It described how a certain High Court judge had been criticised by the Court of Appeal for his use of “intemperate” language and for expressing hostility towards one of the parties, who he considered was deliberately avoiding his legal and moral responsibilities towards the other party. The Telegraph tells us how it has seen the ruling of the Court of Appeal, as if it has been kept secret from general view. Well, not exactly – the judgment has been on the Bailii website since it was handed down back on 19 December, and will therefore have been seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. It is the case of Mann v Mann, a successful appeal by a husband in a long-running financial dispute between former spouses.
The other story relates to a rather more recent Court of Appeal judgment, Re S-W (Children). This was an appeal by a mother against final care orders made in respect of her three children. The Court of Appeal found that the judge dealing with the case had adopted a “ruthlessly truncated process” that was “fundamentally unprincipled and unfair”. It therefore allowed the mother’s appeal and remitted the case back to a different judge for a re-hearing.
What do these two stories tell us? Do they tell us that some judges are error-prone and not suitable for the judiciary? Well, not necessarily. There are, however, two things that they certainly do tell us.
Firstly, they tell us that the appeal system can work to put right mistakes made by the lower courts. An extremely obviously point, but nevertheless one that should be made, rather than using cases such as these simply as a weapon with which to criticise the system. In any system mistakes will be made – the important thing is that those mistakes, or at least as many of them as possible, are rectified. These two cases demonstrate clearly that the system is capable of rectifying errors.
Secondly, they tell us that judges are only human. They are obviously under considerable pressure to ‘get it right’, within extremely tight time schedules, and they, like anyone else, can feel frustrated by parties that they consider are being uncooperative, or by procedures which seem unnecessarily slow and burdensome. The desire to ‘punish’ the uncooperative, or to speed a case to a swift conclusion, is only natural, and such desires can sometimes cloud judgement.
One of the two judges criticised in these cases is a very well-known High Court judge. The other is a local county court judge, who I know little about. As to the High Court judge I can, however, say that he is a man of huge experience, the utmost integrity a great intellect. He quite rightly commands considerable respect, and no doubt will continue to do so. He is, however, only human.
But who would want a judge who was not?