On March 14th The Purvis Society was delighted to welcome His Honour Judge Jeremy Richardson, who chose as his title: “No Brilliance is needed in the law. Nothing but common sense and relatively clean finger nails.” Will this do today? A talk on the law and lawyers in our modern world.
Quickly moving to the main theme, and answering his own title with a resounding “No!”, Judge Richardson suggested that substantial intelligence (and not just academic intelligence) was now required for a successful career in the Law. His own career path stemmed from his reading, when he was barely 14, a biography of Norman Birkett, a distinguished barrister, and so he was not terribly surprised to find that almost a third of our audience expressed an interest in a career in the Law, half of whom were further intrigued by a career as a barrister. He paused only a moment to point out that it was an extremely tough career, that the majority of television legal dramas are “pretty much garbage”, and that the career path suffered from an enormous leakage along the way: very few of the starters make it past the finishing post. Judge Richardson then told us he had spent the last couple of weekends interviewing applicants for scholarships to his Inn, scholarships designed to assist graduates in the next stage of their careers (some were very good, others less so…) and the main piece of advice that he stressed was “go to the best university you can and read for a decent degree, or you have no hope!”. He reflected for a while upon the appallingly difficult decisions he has had to make during his career, briefly mentioning representing a man who was accused (with no defence) of four murders.
Self-deprecatingly, he suggested that his own career path was blessed partly by a minor confusion between himself and a noted legal author (the audience did not for a moment believe him), believing that 20 years as a barrister, collecting a very wide range of experience was probably far more responsible. He commented upon the fact that experience such as this had proved extremely useful when he chose to apply to be a judge in 2008 (“filling in forms and being interviewed by a government panel”) and subsequently when sitting, as he felt that a lot of legal brains nowadays are becoming increasingly specialised and that, maybe, this was not such a good thing. The audience was then invited to comment upon the jury system (“You’ll soon be eligible to serve”) and whilst they were massively in favour of it, he widened our perception of the system by reference to the Vicky Pryce affair and the re-trial required because members of the jury clearly did not understand what they were being called upon to assess. Commenting upon the fact that public confidence in the judicial system is vital, he likened a jury to a mini-parliament, a representative sample of the public, with ordinary people judging ordinary people. Alternatives to this system were briefly reviewed, with questions like, “Are juries more sympathetic to certain cases?” and “Are judges case-hardened and therefore less sympathetic?” leading him to the conclusion that judges can, occasionally, be indulgent as they, unlike of course jurors, will have had many experiences of similar instances.
We then changed tack considerably, with the discussion ranging across the role of ministers in targeting and criticising judicial decisions, although Judge Richardson fell over backwards to express as few personal opinions as possible and to make no political statements. Despite the fact that a judge cannot be sacked, he is unable to fight his corner (except in his court by handing down a judgement) and it is this that ensures his independence; obviously this is vital to the British system, but the price he has to pay is an inability to pass comment, even socially. We moved on to a consideration of Human Rights legislation, with the illuminating comment that it was originally drafted by British legal brains in the 1950s although not incorporated into our domestic law until the 1990s. Basic human rights were considered vital and we concluded by emphasising that the British system is viewed as a model for others to follow, although with the slightly frustrating proviso that we cannot impose our laws (avoidance of the death penalty, for instance) on other countries.
Dinner followed, as usual splendidly prepared by our Executive Chef and his team.