Life at the Bar – Judges 1
We like to think that our judges are, well, just and are, at least when on the bench, upright, sober men and women. The majority are but just occasionally they misbehave and the mask of respectability slips.
One day I was representing a woman, let’s call her Muriel, charged with obtaining social security by fraudulently claiming benefits to which she was not entitled. As usual she was a single mum trying to support her family with too little money. I can’t now remember the exact nature of the lie she had told to increase the welfare payments, but probably it was the small amount she earned from working part time. It wasn’t the first time Muriel had been before the courts for similar offences although it was some years since the last conviction.
She pleaded guilty to three offences of obtaining benefit by fraud and I said what I could on her behalf. My plea in mitigation fell on deaf ears and she was sentenced to six months on each count.
My recollection is that I had other cases at court that day, so I was still in the building in the late afternoon, when I was asked to go to the cells. Once down in the bowels of the courthouse I was told by one of the prison officers that the judge had requested my client be taken back up to the dock. I went to see her in her cell. She was a small woman, dark eyes now red-rimmed, and dark brown hair scraped back into a ponytail. She wanted to know why the judge wanted to see her again. I told her I didn’t know.
After my brief conversation with her I went back into the courtroom. None of the lights in the room was on, only a dim grey light from high windows penetrated the gloom. The panelling around the walls, the judge’s bench and all the seating were dark wood making it seem even darker and more austere. The judge’s bench was raised up and stretched across the width of the room. To one side of the raised area was a red curtain hung on a heavy brass pole. Behind that curtain was the door to the judge’s chambers. I was the only person there; no ushers and no clerk. After a few minutes Muriel was brought into the high dock at the rear, by two prison officers. We all waited in silence.
Suddenly the curtain was swept aside and the Judge staggered onto the bench. He was not robed save for his tabs, but was dressed in a pinstriped suit. In his right hand he had a half full wine glass which he was waving around. He took three steps into the room turned to look at Muriel and said, ‘Those sentences, they are consecutive not concurrent.’ As he was speaking he raised the wine glass and finished with the one word ‘Cheers,’ then fumbled his way back behind the curtain and into his chambers.
The sentences being consecutive meant a term of eighteen months imprisonment not six. Fortunately the prison officers ignored the impromptu and probably illegal sentencing session and recorded the sentence at concurrent.