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Daily Telegraph (UK): Boredom, comedy, high drama - what more could a judge ask for? “Anybody who has sat through a long court case will have a great deal of sympathy with Mr Justice Laddie, who looks like a jolly sort of fellow from his photograph.”: Friday 24 June 2005


By Tom Utley


(Filed: 24/06/2005)


Anybody who has sat through a long court case will have a great deal of sympathy with Mr Justice Laddie, who looks like a jolly sort of fellow from his photograph. He is the High Court judge who announced this week that he was resigning from the Bench because he no longer found the work "stimulating". At the age of 59, he plans to join a firm of solicitors, because he thinks that working with a team will be more fun than sitting in lonely judgment in the Chancery Division, as he has done for the past 10 years.


I am only surprised that so very few judges have made the same decision, and that Sir Hugh Laddie is the first judge since Sir Henry Fisher in 1970 to resign from the High Court in order to take another job. I write with some feeling because, for about 18 months in the late 1970s, I was employed as a Crown Court reporter by the East Anglian Daily Times in Suffolk. Every working day, I had to sit in the press box in the Ipswich courtroom and take notes of cases that sometimes seemed to go on for ever.


Since this was a criminal court, many of the cases on which I reported were full of sex and violence. There were a couple of American airbases in the area covered by the court, and the local US airmen seemed to have a habit of being charged with rape. You might think that this would have been quite exciting work for a young journalist. But it was by no means always like that. There were some afternoons - particularly when the courtroom was hot and stuffy, and the opposing barristers were arguing about obscure points of law or the admissibility of evidence - when I had to bite my hand to stay awake.


If this was how I felt, listening to cases full of human drama, how infinitely more boring it must have been for poor Sir Hugh, perched up there on the Bench for 10 years, adjudicating on his special subject, the ownership of intellectual property. At least I was free to slip out for a cigarette now and then, when I could bear the boredom no longer. Pity the poor judge, trapped in his courtroom on a summer's afternoon, obliged to listen to every word of the case before him, while the birds twittered in the trees outside and the golf links beckoned.


But there are many moments in every courtroom when the boredom suddenly lifts. In Ipswich Crown Court, my heart would always thump in my chest at the great set-piece climax of every trial, when the foreman of the jury would rise and the clerk would put the question to him: "Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?" I would ache with sympathy for rape victims when they broke down in tears under the pitiless cross-examination of their attackers' barristers: "I put it to you that everything you have told this court is a pack of lies. You agreed to have sex with my client, didn't you, because you found him irresistibly attractive?" I can see that barristers have to ask these questions, in the interests of justice for their clients. But, oh, how it hurts to hear them, when you are convinced that the poor girl in the witness box is telling the truth, and the man in the dock is a monster.


Those who enjoy a bit of emotional drama will find plenty of it in any criminal court in the land. But courtrooms of every sort, civil and criminal, are also the perfect settings for high comedy. These are the places where all the pomposity of the law, with its hopeless attempts to make sense of human behaviour, clashes with real life. If there were some afternoons in Ipswich when I had to struggle to stay awake, there were others when I had to fight to suppress fits of laughter.


I remember one case in which an American airman, charged with the usual thing, testified that he had driven his car off the road and into a field because he wanted to "go the bathroom". The judge, who had begun to nod off, suddenly perked up.


"The bathroom?" he said, with all the horrified emphasis that Margaret Rutherford's Lady Bracknell put on the word "handbag" in The Importance of Being Earnest. "Are you asking this court to believe that somebody had constructed a bathroom in the middle of a Suffolk field?"


The defendant's barrister rose to his feet. "If I may assist your Honour," he began, and went on to explain that "going to the bathroom" was an American euphemism for urinating. The judge, who knew perfectly well what the defendant had meant, made an elaborate show of making a note of this information, and returned to the point at great length in his summing-up. Oh, how the court rang with laughter as he did so. That is one of the great things about being a judge: when you crack a joke, however feeble, everybody hoots. Mr Justice Laddie may find that he misses that.


I was reminded of the comic potential of the courtroom by Wednesday's sublime obituary of Patrick Pakenham, younger brother of the late Lord Longford. It recounted how, in his days as a barrister, Pakenham had appeared before an irascible and unpopular judge in a drugs case. The judge, who fancied himself an expert in these matters, seized the bag containing Exhibit A and chewed some of its contents. "Yes, yes of course that is cannabis," he said. "Where was the substance found, Mr Pakenham?" As the obituarist put it: "The reply came swiftly, if inaccurately - 'In the defendant's anus, my Lord'."


Pakenham's obituary went on to quote his final speech to a court, after he had returned from a bibulous lunch: "Members of the jury, it is my duty as defence counsel to explain the facts of this case on my client's behalf. The judge will guide you and advise you on the correct interpretation of the law and you will then consider your verdict. Unfortunately, for reasons which I won't go into now, my grasp of the facts is not as it might be. The judge is nearing senility; his knowledge of the law is out of date, and will be of no use in assisting you to reach a verdict. While, by the look of you, the possibility of your reaching a coherent verdict can be excluded." Having delivered himself of these words, Pakenham was apparently led from the court.


I have a suspicion that Mr Justice Laddie may find life in a solicitors' office less fun than he expects. Before long, he may well be hankering to get back to the drama and comedy of the Bench.


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