Select Committee on Constitution Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)

WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007

RT HON SIR IGOR JUDGE, MR MIKE WICKSTEED AND MR PETER FARR

  Q220  Chairman: It is not a separate, free-standing organisation.

  Mr Wicksteed: No, and I do not think Peter would want it to be.

  Q221  Lord Rowlands: Lord Mackay in his evidence said to us "if a person was sufficiently fit to be a judge of the bench in England and Wales he or she should have sufficient judgment to know when they should speak and when they should be silent in matters with the media". Does the creation of your office say that is not quite the case, it needs backing up or supporting or what?

  Mr Farr: On that one, if I may lead, it is not always the case that a judge is conscious that they are speaking to the media; sometimes they are making sentencing remarks and so forth and it is picked up by the media and becomes a story, and in those situations, particularly where they are not expecting to be prominently featured, they are very appreciative of the support that we are sometimes able to give them. It is not always the case that the judge is aware that they are going to become a story-piece.

  Sir Igor Judge: If I may say so, the provision is not of a spokesman. For example, if there is a sentencing decision which looks as though it is going to hit the headlines, it is very useful for the press office to be supplied with every single thing that the judge has said from the start of his sentencing remarks to the end of them, so that if some editor is choosing to pick out one phrase, at least the reporter can be provided with the full story so that the phrase can be put in context. That may or may not affect the way in which the case is reported, but that is an example of the value of having a press office.

  Q222  Baroness O'Cathain: May I go back to something Mr Farr has just said in response to Lord Rowlands' question? Obviously, I read through all the information and thank you very much for giving us this, it has been very good information and the website is terrific by the way.

  Mr Wicksteed: Thank you.

  Q223  Baroness O'Cathain: In the bit about media support in this little booklet you say "We are always grateful to hear of judges involved in things that might interest the media, e.g. speeches, articles, or who have views on media coverage." That indicates to me that they could be getting very close to becoming part of the media circus, if they get in touch with you to say "There is an interesting point here, why not actually explore this in the media?" Would that happen?

  Mr Farr: If I may, I do not think that is so much the issue, their awareness is that they are operating in a very public arena, there is a lot of interest, there is likely to be coverage of a particular case that they are hearing and they are therefore conscious of everything they say being gone over with a fine toothcomb. They want to flag up where there is a fact that the media are interested and so, for example, we regularly send out judgments and summaries of judgments on behalf of the judges because we know there is a media interest in them and, of course, if they have the full wording of the judgment or the sentencing remarks there is a much better prospect of the media being able to report it accurately and fairly.

  Q224  Baroness O'Cathain: I see, so you are there as a service to them so they do not actually put their foot in it.

  Mr Farr: I would not put it like that myself.

  Q225  Baroness O'Cathain: Why not?

  Sir Igor Judge: Because if we were going to put our foot in it we would put our feet in it, I am afraid. For example, if a judge is going to make a public speech then the sensible thing is for the press office to have it and then there is no argument, but I do not invite Peter or Mike to look at the speech I am going to make and say, "how will this go down with any particular element of the media?"

  Q226  Baroness O'Cathain: It is just giving it as a fait accompli, this is the speech I am going to make, and you could not say there is a complete howler there, do not do it.

  Sir Igor Judge: I would be pretty horrified, but on the other hand if there was a real howler I would not mind somebody just raising a little red flag.

  Baroness O'Cathain: Thank you.

  Q227  Chairman: Mr Wicksteed, would part of your communications brief be to make judges in general and particular judges more human, more media-friendly, are you looking for human interest stories that such and such a judge played the organ for eight hours in his village church for charity? Are you trying to get human interest stories out there?

  Mr Wicksteed: The quick answer to that is no, not at this stage of the game. We are a new office, this is a new concept really for the judiciary and it is really part of a culture change, as is the whole Constitutional Reform Act, and we are part of that culture change. It will take a long time for it to bed down, but in the meanrtime what we are here to do is to make sure that the work that they do in court is well and accurately reported broadly speaking.

  Sir Igor Judge: I must say, if I may, "no, not ever" would be my answer to the question as to whether they really should be saying Mr Justice X is particularly good as a tenor in the local village choir. I really do not think that is what Mike or Peter's job is.

  Q228  Chairman: Just a supplementary and then I will bring Lord Rowlands in; is it part of your practice to put the senior judiciary through media training?

  Mr Wicksteed: We have provided media training for those who are going to be interviewed by reporters for those who want it, but it is not a regular practice, we do not have regular sessions, and that is a service that I think we should be in a position to provide them with because giving an interview to a national newspaper can be quite a complicated thing sometimes, especially if you are not used to dealing with journalists at that level.

  Q229  Chairman: Is that "prepping" a judge for a specific interview or is it generic training?

  Mr Wicksteed: It tends to be generic. What we did produce, and I have brought copies with us if you would like to look at them later—in LCD was a booklet called The Media: A Guide for Judges and that gave quite a lot of information on how judges could interact with the media; it was put out to all judges serving at the time and passed out to newly appointed judges. That is what that Ryman's bag is, and I will pass it up to you later. It is very, very generic in terms of the information we give out.

  Chairman: Thank you very much; we will look at that with interest. Lord Morris.

  Q230  Lord Morris of Aberavon: I am very interested in the comments made regarding the service of providing, where required, the full wording of a judgment at the request of the press. Could you give some rough indication what proportion of the press office's work that is; it would seem to me to be very important to get the odd expression which may be not quite fortunate into its right perspective. As Sir Igor said, once the words are uttered it is impossible to reclaim them—I think that comes from Virgil, but never mind.

  Mr Farr: I would not like to put it in percentage terms, but it is certainly a reasonable proportion of the time. We are constantly looking ahead to what cases are coming up and whether we can provide material for the media on the cases, but of course a lot of the time is spent in dealing with enquiries both from journalists and from the media themselves, and preparing for announcements and speeches and other matters in due course. A fair proportion of our time, therefore, is preparing and so on, yes.

  Q231  Chairman: Perhaps, Sir Igor, I could ask you something which is very topical in the Committee's mind which is that you yourself are a very senior judge with wide experience. I wonder if you would be prepared to characterise your reaction or that of any of your colleagues to the recent statement from the Home Secretary, which was issued together with the Attorney-General, which ostensibly was a clarification of sentencing guidelines, but in relation to the overcrowding of prisons. I can see that that might be innocently interpreted as a reminder of the status quo, which was basically the gloss that was put on it subsequently, or it might have been seen as a tap on the shoulder saying watch out, the prisons are very overcrowded so be sure to follow the guidelines very closely, please. I just wondered whether it was seen as a steer or a reminder by you and your colleagues.

  Sir Igor Judge: There is a certain amount of misunderstanding about the sequence of events. The Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General in the National Criminal Justice Board, of which I am a member, produced a statement relating to the overcrowding of prisons. I showed that statement to the senior presiding judge, Lord Justice Levison; he took the view, in the exercise of his function, that that was an appropriate statement for him to send out to judges. It was not sent out by any minister, nor was any minister asking Lord Justice Levison to have it sent out. He sent it out saying this is in effect the information that has been given to the National Criminal Justice Board, and then Lord Phillips issued a further statement. I myself never saw that statement as an attempt to impinge on the way in which judges should approach sentencing. The issue of overcrowding in prisons is one which we have addressed and was addressed last week in a judgment that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Latham and I gave. There has been a certain amount of uncertainty, I think is the way to put it, about the way in which those events unfolded.

  Q232  Chairman: I am grateful to you because you are clearly in a position to know what the facts are and that is very helpful to the Committee, but can I just be absolutely clear, there was no question of these very senior ministers saying we would be grateful if this could be passed on to all the judges.

  Sir Igor Judge: I am a member of the National Criminal Justice Board so they will have known that I will have got it and I saw it. I decided to pass it on; I think they would have assumed that I would have passed it on but I decided that I should pass it on and it was not for them to tell me whether to do so or not, and then it was for Lord Justice Levison to decide whether or not it was something that he thought it appropriate to have circulated to judges, and he did.

  Q233  Chairman: It is very helpful to have that. What do you think the effect was on the recipients in this perfectly proper way as you describe it? Maybe you know what the reaction was.

  Sir Igor Judge: I do not know what they all thought, but by the time 24 hours had gone by it would have been very difficult for anybody to know what the actual facts were. Certainly those who thought that the Home Secretary was seeking to influence their sentencing decisions would have been absolutely outraged; that is not something that judges are prepared to stomach, and so if there were misunderstandings, there were. But the facts are as I have given them to you. I think the judges now understand the sequence of events because they will have had their letter from Lord Justice Levison saying this is the statement prepared by the NCJB. I should add that we are very worried about overcrowding in prisons; it is an issue which troubles judges.

  Q234  Chairman: To get it right, these very senior ministers could reasonably have assumed that you would see that it was passed on, that would have been a reasonable assumption on their part.

  Sir Igor Judge: That would have been a reasonable assumption; I would have been failing in my duty if I had not passed it on.

  Chairman: Good, thank you very much. Perhaps we can move on. Baroness O'Cathain.

  Q235  Baroness O'Cathain: Thank you. The DCA website says that your organisation was drawn up "to enhance public confidence in judicial office holders in England and Wales". Although it has only been going for a short period of time, do you have any evidence that it is actually achieving great success or just modest success or no success at all?

  Sir Igor Judge: If you are asking me, the ambition is rather a large and wide one. Enhancing public confidence is a most difficult concept and it is particularly difficult, if I may say so, for judges who actually are not in the business of trying to sell themselves to anyone. If our judgments do not speak for themselves there is nothing that the Communications Office or the press office can do. There are much deeper problems about the way in which our judgments are reported, about public attitudes to judges based on the way our cases are reported, so my answer to your question is I am very troubled about the target. As to whether it is being achieved or not, I do not know how you tell but there are various statistics which show that the public tends to trust judges rather more than it trusts, shall we say for the sake of argument, politicians.

  Q236  Baroness O'Cathain: That would not be terribly difficult.

  Sir Igor Judge: Mike Wicksteed might be in a better position to add to that.

  Q237  Baroness O'Cathain: Have you had surveys done or do you intend having a survey done?

  Mr Wicksteed: At this stage of the game, no, we do not. The concept of enhancement sort of indicates that there is a problem. To my way of thinking there is not a problem and I have attached to the material that I provided Committee members a couple of surveys that were conducted last year, one from YouGov and one from Mori. Those show that the judiciary are third in both cases in terms of, broadly speaking, public trust. We do not take credit for that and as you can see from the Mori poll that has been the case now for many years; I think it goes back as far as 1983. The terminology may not be quite right, but our objective is more than the public-facing confidence in the judiciary, our objective also contains a requirement to support internal communication with the judiciary. That is extremely important, that the Lord Chief Justice and the senior judiciary can get messages down to judges, magistrates and tribunals of the judiciary.

  Q238  Baroness O'Cathain: Does that mean that the Lord Chief Justice is going to spend even more time doing what in effect is media relations?

  Mr Wicksteed: No, I do not think so.

  Q239  Baroness O'Cathain: Or preparing for media relations.

  Mr Wicksteed: No.


 
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