Judicial errors and indiscretions are, of course, gleefully seized upon by the media. So it was over the weekend, when a reprimand for misconduct by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (‘JCIO’) that was issued against a family court circuit judge led to a headline in a certain national newspaper which began: “Meet the rudest judge in Britain”…
Well, I’m not at all sure that His Honour Judge Robert Stephen Dodds is the rudest judge in Britain, but it does at least seem that on the occasions where the JCIO found that his actions amounted to serious misconduct, Judge Dodds was having a bad day.
The JCIO investigation concerned Judge Dodds’ conduct in four cases: Re S-W, Re A, Re P and Re S. Serious misconduct was found in the first three of those, but there was found to be no evidence of misconduct on the part of Judge Dodds in relation to Re S.
I have in fact already written here about Re S-W. That was an appeal by a mother against final care orders made in respect of her three children. The Court of Appeal found that Judge Dodds 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.
Moving on, Re A was an appeal against the “peremptory dismissal” by Judge Dodds of an application for a direction for DNA testing made on behalf of a 13-year-old girl in support of her application for a declaration of parentage. The language used by Judge Dodds in this case was really quite remarkable, suggesting to me that he was utterly exasperated with what he considered to be an unmeritorious and unnecessary application. Referring to the girl’s application he said:
“The lunatics have truly taken over the asylum … For heaven sake, in this day and age especially, just because the lunatic says, ‘I want, I want’, you do not have to respond by spoon feeding their every wish”.
He went on to comment: “Can I tell you how bitterly resentful I am at how much of my Saturday I spent reading this codswallop?” Needless to say, the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal. Lady Justice Black made the following comment:
“…the unrestrained and immoderate language used by the judge must, I am afraid, be deplored and is wholly unacceptable. Such bombast can only leave advocates seeking to present, on instructions, their cases to the court feeling browbeaten and impotent and, rightly, as though their lay clients have been denied a fair hearing.”
Lastly, Re P was another care case, involving a child of Polish parents. The parents were appealing against a decision of Judge Dodds to make a care order without giving proper consideration to the possibility that the child might live with other family members in Poland. When counsel for the mother raised that possibility, Judge Dodds dismissed it in short order, concluding with the words: “If you do not like it, there is always the Court of Appeal. Good luck.” Judge Dodds also suggested that counsel for the mother and the solicitor for the guardian (who also raised the question of investigations of relatives in Poland) were not thinking the matter through with sufficient intelligence by saying: “…this is a game of chess, not draughts. Any fool can play draughts and move one step at a time. It takes rather more skill to play chess where you have to think several moves ahead.” The Court of Appeal found that Judge Dodds had been in error, that the case had been conducted in a manner that was inappropriate and that Judge Dodds had ruled out at an inappropriately premature stage an option which should have been given normal assessment and full consideration. Accordingly, the care order was set aside and the case was sent back for re-hearing before a different judge.
Now, I’m not going to condone what happened in these cases, or attempt to trivialise what were extremely serious decisions with extremely serious consequences. However, as I said here previously, judges are only human. Sometimes they make mistakes, just like anyone else. Sometimes they express feelings that they shouldn’t, even if many judges have similar feelings. And do not forget that they are under great pressure for speed and efficient use of resources, as Lord Justice McCombe pointed out in Re P. In short, judges have bad days too.
Photo by xcode via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence